Just as Green Bay’s defensive backs are showing signs of playing better, we’re now coming to realize that much of the problem with the team’s pass defense has to do with the Packers’ ever-worsening pass rush. In 11 games, the Packers are averaging 2.0 sacks per contest. How important are sacks? In the team’s five wins, they’ve run up 14 sacks. In the six losses, they’ve had but eight sacks.
Let’s look at some more numbers.
For the last eight years (2017 numbers are season-ending projections) here are the team’s sack numbers, with the league ranking in parentheses: 47 in 2010 (2nd), 29 in 2011 (27th), 47 in 2012 (4th), 44 in 2013 (8th), 41 in 2014 (9th), 43 in 2015 (7th), 40 in 2016 (6th), and 32 in 2017 (23rd).
Because quarterback hits is a recent statistic, I can only tell you what this year reveals. Through 11 games, the Packers have 76 QB hits, ranking them 22nd in the league, which closely compares to their sacks ranking on the year.
These stats indicate that over the last eight years the Packers have had a consistently strong pass rush, except in 2011 and to date this year.
When you go inside the numbers, a pattern forms that a team’s three top pressure rushers determine how good one’s pass rush will be. The Packers rely greatly on their outside linebackers to pressure opposing QBs. In 2016, Nick Perry (11), Julius Peppers (7.5), and Clay Matthews (5) accounted for 59 percent of the team’s sacks. In 2017, Perry (10.2 projected) and Matthews (5.1 projected) are doing as expected – but the loss of Peppers is the primary cause of the drop off.
Looking at the best sack teams in recent years, in 2015, Denver led the league with 52 sacks, with linebackers Von Miller (11), DeMarcus Ware (7.5) and Shaquil Barrett (5.5) leading the way, along with defensive end Malik Jackson (also with 5.5).
The league leader in 2016 was Arizona, with its top three being linebacker Marcus Golden (12.5), linebacker Chandler Jones (11), and defensive tackle Calais Campbell (8.0).
This year the leader, by far, is Jacksonville. They rely mostly on their big defensive linemen: defensive end Calais Campbell already has 11.5 sacks, defensive end Yannick Ngakoue has 10, outside linebacker Dante Fowler has 6.5, and defensive tackle Malik Jackson has 5. By season’s end the Jaguars are projected to wind up with 58 sacks.
You probably noticed that good pass rushers are in great demand. In early 2016, Malik Jackson left the Broncos and signed a six-year, $90 million contract with the cash-rich Jags. In early 2017, Calais Campbell departed from Arizona and signed a four-year, $60 million contract with those same Jaguars.
And by the way, Carolina reclaimed Julius Peppers in March at the bargain price of $3.5 million for one year. Peppers has 8.5 sacks on the year, tied for 12th place in the NFL.
The above stats suggest that without three or four linemen or linebackers with special expertise at getting to the quarterback, you aren’t going to exert a lot of pressure on opposing QBs. Yes, blitzing defensive backs can help, but they play a minor role in pressuring the passer.
Once in a while a strong pass rusher will emerge after a few seasons, as Nick Perry has. But for the most part, great pass rushers seem to be made, not developed. For example, Clay Matthews burst right out with 23 sacks in his first two seasons.
Though the Packers pride themselves on being a draft-and-develop team, I credit them with going out and acquiring a proven sack master, Julius Peppers, in 2014. He contributed 25 sacks to the Packers in his three years with the team.
What About Pass-Rushing Technique?
Am I the only one who sees this? Every game, for years now, I agonize as the Packers outside linebackers – and principally Clay Matthews – try to rush around the outside to reach the quarterback. I see one advantage to this approach: getting to the quarterback from behind often results in turnovers by way of fumbles or altering passes.
But what about the disadvantages? Rushing around the outside leaves the quarterback with unhindered vision up field. It fails to distract the passer by seeing onrushing defenders in his peripheral vision. It prevents the rusher from being able to knock down or deflect passes – the latter being a prime source of interceptions.
It leaves running lanes open for the quarterback. It removes the rusher from being in any position to snuff out a draw play or a screen pass.
Taking the round-about path to the QB makes it fairly easy for the blocker to simply divert the rusher to the outside or past and behind the passer. This expands, rather than shrinks, the pocket.
Finally, taking the indirect, or loop-around, route to the QB is time-consuming, making it almost impossible to reach today’s crop of rapid-throwing passers prior to the throw being made.
Remember how often you used to see Matthews do a spin move to the inside? Or how he and Peppers used to stunt or crisscross to coordinate a rush? I don’t see those tactics anymore. Trying to burst by the blocker on the outside should be just one of many ploys for a creative pass rusher – not something done four out of every five snaps.
Like coach Mike McCarthy and his offense, Dom Capers on the defensive side of the ball has allowed his non-blitzing pass rushers to become way too predictable.
Packers Personnel Picture
Currently, the Packers have two quality pass rushers, Perry and Matthews – when Clay is healthy, which isn’t often anymore. Mike Daniels, though only 28, has actually been on a downward spiral in this regard – from 2013 through 2016, his sack count has been 6.5, then 5.5, then 4, then 4 again – he has 3.5 so far this season. Regardless of sack numbers, however, Daniels reliably provides pressure, game in and game out.
Matthews is 31, Daniels is 28, and Perry is 27 – they all should be in or near their prime.
Second-year man Kenny Clark is a solid lineman, but he hasn’t shown himself to be a quarterback harasser. Big, down linemen can still be pass rushers. Some of the top sack men in the league are big guys, including 300-pound Calais Campbell and the Steelers’ 295-pound Cameron Heywood – who just notched his eighth and ninth sacks of the year against the Packers, last Sunday. Clark, who has no sacks in two years, needs to be told that rushing the passer is part of his job description.
The other hope on the roster is rookie Vince Biegel – who needs to be given ample playing time in the remaining five games. If he doesn’t give any hints by then of being an effective pass rusher, there will be lots of postseason debate as to which draft round should be used for seeking out the next Clay Matthews.