Dak Prescott and Tony Romo grabbed most of the headlines for the Dallas Cowboys this week, but Ezekiel Elliott may emerge Sunday as the talk of the team.
The NFL's leading rusher has helped push the Cowboys atop the NFC East with a 4-1 mark. With Elliott improving every week, Dallas' second-ranked offense shows no signs of slowing down.
But the Cowboys haven't faced a test like the one they have Sunday, in which they take on the Green Bay Packers' top-ranked run defense at Lambeau Field. Through four games, Green Bay is allowing just 42.8 yards per game and 2.0 yards per attempt on the ground. And the Packers' defense has yielded just two runs of more than 10 yards — one for 14 and another for 12.
Yet Green Bay has established the imposing stats against sub-par rushing attacks, with the Detroit Lions ranking the best at 23rd in rushing yards per game. Opponents also have eschewed the run to take advantage of a vulnerable secondary, with top cornerback Sam Shields still sidelined by a concussion.
But the Packers' defensive line has shown it can disrupt plays from the get go. The unit has made a marked improvement from last season, in which it gave up 171 rushing yards on 20 carries to the Cowboys in a road win.
"Always excited for a challenge," Elliott said this week, according to the Dallas Morning News. "That's what players love. ... They're just physical, they're good in the middle, interior, got a lot of good players over there. So it's just going to be who's going to be the most physical."
As always for the Cowboys, establishing Elliott will help keep Prescott in his comfort zone of working the short-to-intermediate part of the field. If he's forced to throw downfield on obvious passing downs, Green Bay has an active pass rush that could fluster him.
Here are four other matchups that will define Week 6 in the NFL:
Falcons WR Julio Jones vs. Seahawks CB Richard Sherman
Running backs Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman took over as the central figures in the Falcons' offense last week, but don't expect Jones to be idle for long. A matchup of the league's top-ranked offense against its best defense calls for the wide receiver once again to have a central role.
Sherman said this week he expects to shadow Jones, a sentiment Falcons coach Dan Quinn echoed. Facing top cornerbacks hasn't shrunk Jones' role within the offense before, though Quinn and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan might be a little bit more judicious about attacking Sherman.
The weather in Seattle could tilt this matchup in Sherman's favorite. Strong winds and possible thunderstorms are in the forecast, and quarterback Matt Ryan might be reticent to test the Seahawks downfield in those conditions.
Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski vs. Bengals linebackers
In the famous "on to Cincinnati" game during the Patriots' 2014 Super Bowl campaign, Gronkowski had six catches for 100 yards and a touchdown to help revive New England's offense. The all-pro tight end already had his bounce-back game last week in a 109-yard outing against the Cleveland Browns, but Sunday's game against the Bengals could serve as notice for the rest of the league that he has returned to form.
With Tom Brady playing in his first game at Gillette Stadium since serving his Deflategate ban, Gronkowski should have plenty of opportunities to leave his mark on the game. He is listed as questionable after sitting out Friday's practice with an illness, but he should be able to return to the robust role he fulfilled last week.
Cincinnati has been solid in defending tight ends this season, and linebackers Vincent Rey and Karlos Dansby have been among the best at their position in pass coverage. In order to hand Brady just his second regular-season loss to an AFC foe at home since 2007, the Bengals will have to keep Gronkowski from making big plays as well as hurting them in the red zone.
Eagles RT Halapoulivaati Vaitai vs. Redskins' edge defenders
Lane Johnson's 10-game suspension forces Vaitai, the fifth-round rookie from TCU, into the starting lineup. He'll have little room for error Sunday in an NFC East clash against the Redskins.
Rookie quarterback Carson Wentz has thrived against pressure, with an NFL-best 84% completion rate against the blitz, according to ESPN. But if Redskins outside linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Trent Murphy can generate pressure by attacking Vaitai, Washington might have an easier time in containing the Eagles' aerial attack.
The 6-6, 315-pound Vaitai also could play a crucial role in the running game. The Redskins are allowing a league-worst 5.1 yards per rushing attempt, and the Eagles can put its deep and versatile backfield to work until forced to do otherwise.
Colts QB Andrew Luck vs. Texans' pass rush
Luck took the blame this week for the Colts' early protection struggles, saying he was holding onto the ball for too long. Both the quarterback and his offensive line will have to be at their best Sunday night against an unrelenting Texans pass rush.
In five games, Luck has been sacked 20 times, the most of any quarterback in the league. He is on pace to be sacked 64 times in the regular season, which would be the fourth-highest total for any player in a single season.
A quick trigger likely will be required against Houston's rush, which terrorized the Minnesota Vikings' thing offensive line last week. Even with J.J. Watt sidelined, the deep unit has been able to generate consistent pressure. Jadeveon Clowney leads the NFL with eight solo tackles for loss, and the defense as a whole leads the NFL with just 181 passing yards allowed per game.
Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.
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