Was Packers’ Pass Rush to Blame for Defensive Woes?

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Mike Daniels

Green Bay’s defensive backs had a bad year in 2017. They allowed 3,789 passing yards, or 236.8 yards per game. Though they ranked 23rd in the league, it was actually an improvement of over 500 yards from the 2016 season, when they finished 31st in passing yards surrendered.

We know the cornerbacks and safeties did not perform well and they are the one who usually get most of the blame. But some say they were hung out to dry by the team’s front seven, who failed to sufficiently pressure the quarterback. Without pressure, receivers had copious amounts of time to get open, and quarterbacks were able to focus on their receivers without constantly being distracted by onrushing defenders.

When assessing a pass rush, too much emphasis can be put on sack numbers. I try to look for pressure (or “hurries”) statistics, but they are hard to come by. Various analytical sources will publish them sporadically, but not on an annual basis.

Pro Football Focus did issue a study of “pressures by the front seven” for 2017 and it’s pretty informative.

Those who argue that harassing the quarterback is the key to great pass defense can point to the team that is well ahead of the rest of the league: the Super Bowl winning Eagles had 35 more pressures than anyone else according to PFF. And the team with 50 fewer pressures than anyone else was the winless Browns. The Browns’ 142 pressures in 2017 was less than half of the Eagles’ 309.

Over two-thirds of the league is closely bunched in the middle. The Packers were one of 10 teams with from 209 to 219. The league’s best pass defense, Minnesota, is in a nine-team bunch having from 233 to 250 pressures.

PFF calculated that Minnesota had 234 pressures and Green Bay had 218, in 2017. That’s a difference of only one pressure per game. Though Minnesota had only the 14th best pressure stats, their talented defensive backs made up for that deficiency.

Minnesota Versus Green Bay

The defenses of the two NFC North rivals makes for some interesting comparisons. Each team had a Pro Bowl defensive line pass rusher in 2017: the Packers’ Mike Daniels and the Vikings’ Everson Griffen.

The Vikings had the edge at the edge, with Anthony Barr, named to the last three Pro Bowls, outperforming the Packers’ Clay Matthews.

The Vikings also had the better defensive backfield, which included two All-Pros: cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safety Harrison Smith. Not only that, but they just continued their pass defense focus by using their first round pick on Central Florida cornerback Mike Hughes.

The Packers will need to improve in all three areas if they are to finish atop the NFC North.

Reasons for Optimism

The Packers’ front office has made a massive commitment – four high-round defensive back picks in two years – in trying to keep pace with Minnesota’s pass defense. Green Bay should close that gap in 2018, and if Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson live up to their lofty billing, Green Bay might overtake them as soon as 2019.

Beyond the players, however, the biggest hope for a resurgent defense might come from a man who doesn’t even get on the field. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is going to give the Packers’ defense an about-face: more pressure on the passer from more positions; more jamming of receivers at the line of scrimmage; more man-to-man coverage; tighter coverage; more balls contested in the air; more causing of turnovers.

Will the new-look defense be enough to return the Packers to contesting for a Super Bowl berth? Can such a turnaround be accomplished in one year? And even more daunting, can the transition happen so quickly that the Packers can prevail in week 2, when Minnesota invades Lambeau Field? Many Pettine adherents think so.

About The Author

Rob is currently twiddling his thumbs on Whidbey Island in Washington. He likes to do research, although he has no shortage of opinions. He saw his first live Packers game in 1958, the only win of the year.

9 Comments on "Was Packers’ Pass Rush to Blame for Defensive Woes?"

  1. Kato

    Sure it’s possible. Look no further than the last defensive coordinator change. The switch from Bob Sanders to Capers was enormous. Question is Will the packers hit the jackpot twice in a row? Doubtful

  2. I would suggest that the PFF stats for pressures by the front 7 must also factor in one additional stat. The pass attempts per game must also be factored. As an example the Eagles had the second most passes attempted against them so they would have had more chances to get pressures than other teams. When factoring attempts and pressures together the Eagles get a pressure every 1.9 attempt. Very good, however the Jags are slightly better at 1.87. Tied for third would be the Rams and the Redskins at 2.02.

    The Packers had the fifth fewest pass attempts against them in the league. That is unbelievable, but I guess teams when they got a lead knew to run the ball and the clock because Hundley wasn’t going to beat you. The Packers in the PFF pressure stats was 17th. In the stats taking into account pass attempts against, the Packers are 15th at 2.35. The Packers jump ahead of the Vikings at 2.37 and the saints at 2.52. The browns no matter how you look at it are still at 32 with 3.69.

    • Kato

      Interesting, thanks for doing that research. I think it was a combination of both. I don’t think the packers were terrible at getting pressure, just very average. You hardly ever saw coverage sacks last year. The way the packers corners played off the ball last year it allowed quicker completions. What an interesting number would be is average time from snap to the ball leaving the QBs hand to get an idea of how quick the ball was getting to a receiver. If it is around 2.0-2.3 seconds that is probably mostly on the pass defenders. Anything over is mostly on the pass rush. That is probably why MM sought out a DC that emphasized press man to challenge receivers more at the line and disrupt timing

      • You know me. You need to have corners that can redirect and obstruct receivers at the line. Pettine will switch things up in coverage, but I think Pettine will not be having the corners play off 5 to 7 yards and start back peddling at the snap.

        I do believe the pass rush and coverage have to work together. I also believe the Packer pass rush needs to improve. I do believe the Packer DBs and the alignments they were put in are by far the weak link of the two groups.

        Beside the pressures per pass attempt above the Packers were 10th in the league in sacks per pass attempt at 13.86. To give a basis the Steelers were #1 at 8.9. The Vikings were 18th at 15. The Vikings DBs do hold up well based on a below average pass rush, until teams like the Eagles took big advantage of a Vikings below average pass rush.

        I think if you are going to use PFF, then PFF tells you what group is the weakest point, even though the grades do not take into account how often certain players are not on the field, and the affect that has on a team or group. PFF grades as follows:

        King 41, poor ; Rollins 41.3, poor; Hawkins 43.4, poor; Jones 48.1, Poor ; House 50.3, poor ; Pipkins 69.7, Below average ; Randal 70.9, average ; Burnett 77.2, average ; Dix 79.1, average.

        Fackrell 58.8, poor ; biegel 71.2, average ; Brooks 72.3, average; Gilbert 72.8, average; Perry 80.5, above average; Matthews 83.4, above average; Lowery 77 , average; Daniels 87, high quality; Clark 87.9 high quality.

          • Everything I wrote about was found free on PFF website. I know they have paywall services for certain information, but I have never tried to get the paid service. I did get some of the info from NFL team stats and used my calculator.

    • Moolla

      THANK YOU HOWARD!

      It boggles my mind how much people gloss over the rate of a particular stat and zero in on quantity alone. In this particular case it “sack/passing-attempt” and not just total sacks.

      I know, I know there are many more nuances, such as bad passing defenses will likely be targeted more, and how long a team is playing from behind etc. etc.

      But averaging stats over relevant plays or whatever will give a much better picture than just the grand total alone over a season.

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