Respect the 'roach': Why Cowboys are on alert as Mike McCarthy returns to face Aaron Rodgers, Packers

FRISCO, Texas — Micah Parsons learned the lesson from his grandmother.

He plans to implement it Sunday at Lambeau Field in head coach Mike McCarthy's return, facing a Green Bay Packers team led by McCarthy's longtime quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

“My grandma told me: If you see a roach and it’s fooling around, do you step on it and bury it or do you let it rebuild and get back to life?” Parsons told Yahoo Sports. “You step on it. I live life with no remorse. You can’t have no remorse in this game [or] it turns up to bite you.”

So consider Parsons and his Dallas Cowboys teammates on full alert. Forget the Packers’ five-game losing streak. Forget Rodgers throwing as many interceptions across the past two weeks as he did all of last year.

The Cowboys seek their seventh win. And they know three keys to their victory.

Step 1: Stopping Aaron Rodgers

The roach, as Parsons’ grandmother reminded, can rediscover its legs. So, too, is Rodgers rediscovering his arms easy to imagine for anyone who watched his 2020 and 2021 MVP campaigns. Sure, Rodgers is faltering without longtime target Davante Adams, who left in the offseason for the Las Vegas Raiders. Rookie wide receiver Romeo Doubs has not practiced this week while rehabilitating a high-ankle sprain that could sideline him multiple weeks. Rodgers’ passer rating has dropped 21.9 points since last season, his touchdown-to-interception ratio zapped from a 9.25-to-1 to a mere 2-to-1.

But the Cowboys still understand Rodgers’ arm talent, throwing velocity and rare ball placement. They know the risk of a quarterback who can scramble and move the pocket against a defense far more equipped to stifle the pass than the run.

“He can make any throw, he scrambles, he moves the pocket,” Parsons said. “I’m expecting the unexpected because we’re not going to see the Aaron Rodgers we saw all year.”

Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are struggling this season, but the Cowboys aren't banking on it continuing in Mike McCarthy's return to Green Bay. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are struggling this season, but the Cowboys aren't banking on it continuing in Mike McCarthy's return to Green Bay. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

Cowboys pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence has sacked Rodgers three times in six career games, including the playoffs. The Cowboys lost five of those, including suffering two playoff eliminations at Rodgers’ hands. He’s not just physically gifted, Lawrence says. Rodgers also operates with a high level of awareness.

“He actually plays the game of football to what you’re doing,” Lawrence said. “So if we’re in a situational change and bringing somebody off the ball, now he’s back on the ball because he doesn't want us changing personnel.

“I feel like that’s his biggest thing: He’s already got a play in his back pocket and he can get his guys on the ball fast.”

Step 2: Stop the Packers' run game

The Packers’ running game is league average, their 120.7 yards per game ranking 14th. But the Packers’ top running back, Aaron Jones, threatened a stout Buffalo defense two weeks ago for 143 rushing yards.

Dallas has been punished on the ground by teams, including the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who gashed the defense for 152 yards despite averaging a league-worst 60.7 per game this year. Most recently, the Chicago Bears gained 240 ground yards on it.

The Cowboys know their rush defense (24th) is far inferior to their pass rush (fourth). They know, too, that opponents are game-planning accordingly. McCarthy had said he would game-plan against the Cowboys by trying “to stress every C-gap potential that you can,” referring to the Cowboys’ struggle to defend perimeter runs.

Parsons sees opponents favoring screen passes and runs on typical passing situations like third-and-long.

“They’re trying to take away parts of our game,” Parsons said. “Teams are playing more conservative and it’s tough because you look at the week before’s film and you come watch our film, and it’s two different games. Two different game plans.”

In hopes of preventing missed assignments resulting in explosive plays allowed, Cowboys secondary coach/passing game coordinator Joe Whitt Jr. leads the team through a weekly “issue plays” meeting every Wednesday to communicate through designs most likely to challenge Dallas.

On which play-action looks must the corner stay on the over route? On which routes must the linebackers be prepared to cover a receiver? Details dominate. Parsons said defensive coordinator Dan Quinn reminded players of that.

“Some people want to get into the 10%, some people hop into the 5%, some hop into the 1%,” Parsons said of Quinn’s message. “The 1% is when you’ve got really good teams. And if you’re really good, I think you can get to the 0.01%, that small percentage where not a lot of people really go.

“That’s where we can really go.”

Step 3: Run, Cowboys, run

On offense, meanwhile, the Cowboys would do well to ride Ezekiel Elliott (who will likely play rehabilitating from a knee injury) and Tony Pollard in a two-headed ground attack, which is more likely to disrupt Green Bay's defense than passing. The Packers rank second in coverage, allowing just 170.6 passing yards per game. Their unit suffered a blow last Sunday, though, when top pass rusher Rashan Gary (who has a team-high six sacks) suffered a season-ending ACL tear. Cornerback Eric Stokes (ankle/knee) also hasn’t practiced this week and could miss the game.

Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott expects the Packers to challenge the Cowboys schematically regardless of personnel.

“Having the injury that they had is tough on them, but we know that they’re going to come in, they’re going to have the scheme that they’re confident in and they’re going to try to get after us up front creating one-on-ones and playing our receivers tight,” Prescott said. “Even in their zone, it looks like man, so you get that whole deal. But for us it’s about being on the same page, me trusting my guys, having confidence as I do and them going and make plays.”

Running the ball (and the clock) stifles Rodgers’ threat. Elliott and Pollard appear capable.

And if Rodgers rediscovers momentum, playing against the coach with whom he won a Super Bowl? Parsons hopes any initial outwitting won't last.

“It’s just chess,” he said. “That’s the thing about chess: You can lose the first couple moves but you learn how to adjust and understand his opening and his end game, you can still win.”

Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein