Packers at Bye: Pass Defense Gets Sacked

If not for New England, Green Bay would be on pace to field the worst pass defense in NFL history. Big plays allowed have been a big issue - a problem that can be traced to the lack of big plays produced by the pass rush. We have the statistical evidence.

The Green Bay Packers' defensive coaching staff will spend part of this bye week doing some self-scouting.

We'll save them the trouble: The Packers' pass rush has gone from overwhelming strength to overwhelming weakness.

The lack of pressure on the quarterback is perhaps the biggest reason why the Packers rank 31st in the NFL with 288.9 passing yards allowed per game. Green Bay is on pace to allow 4,622 yards through the air, which would unseat the 1995 Falcons as the worst pass defense in NFL history if not for this year's Patriots being on track to yield 5,155 passing yards.

Last season, the Packers' finished with 47 sacks, one off Pittsburgh's league-leading mark. Clay Matthews finished with 13.5 sacks, Cullen Jenkins added 7.0 and B.J. Raji chipped in 6.5. That's a combined 27 sacks from that trio.

Through seven games this season, the Packers have 17 sacks, putting them on pace for 39, which would put them in a tie for 13th. Matthews, Jarius Wynn and Desmond Bishop are the team's top three in sacks, with 3.0 apiece, putting them on pace for a combined 20.5 sacks.

To add further perspective, FootballOutsiders.com breaks it down with its "adjusted sack rate," which provides sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance and opponent.

According to that measurement, the Packers' pass rush ranks 23rd in the league, with a sack (or grounding penalty) on 5.6 percent of pass attempts. Last season, the Packers ranked fourth with a sack (or grounding penalty) on 8.1 percent of pass attempts.

Defensive coordinator Dom Capers, however, said he's not overly concerned about the pressure.

"The very first year (as the Packers' coordinator), I was asked that question at about the halfway point through the season," Capers said of 2009, when the Packers tied for 11th with 37 sacks. "At that time, I said I've always been patient. The last two years, we've been second in the NFL in sacks over a two-year period. I see us getting good pressure at times. Sacks can be tied in to how tight you are in your coverage, the type of quarterbacks you're playing against."

Still, personnel appears to be an issue to explain why Matthews and Raji are having less of an impact in the passing game.

It's no surprise that Jenkins' free agent departure was a key loss, with defensive line coach Mike Trgovac calling him a "rare bird" when asked about his unit's pass-rushing production on Friday. In six games with Philadelphia, Jenkins has 5.0 sacks. It's also no surprise that his absence is impacting the rest of the defense – especially with his presumed replacement, Mike Neal, having not played a snap this season because of a knee injury that required surgery. Still, the drop-off has been dramatic.

Matthews has a sack in each of the last two games. Before that, his only sack was chasing Cam Newton out of bounds for no gain in Week 2. Raji had his second sack of the season last week, when he was the closest player to Christian Ponder when the rookie ran out of bounds for no gain.

"I don't really care about sacks," Trgovac said, noting that his linemen frequently are "setup guys" for the rest of the defense. "If you look at our and teams that do similar to us, like Pittsburgh, I think you'll find our sacks are very comparable to what those teams have."

Maybe the biggest issue is the lack of production at outside linebacker. Last year, the potpourri of outside linebackers who played opposite Matthews combined for eight sacks. This year, Erik Walden has the only one. Frank Zombo, who had four sacks as a midseason addition to the starting lineup last year, barely has played because of injuries.

Quarterback hits also are telling. According to the team's count, Matthews has a team-high 29 – which would trounce last year's season-ending total of 40. Walden, who matched his season high with four hits last week, is next with 17. Raji is a distant third with four. Wynn, who joins Raji as the defensive linemen in nickel pass-rushing situations, has just three hits to go with his three sacks.

Last year's nickel duo of Raji and Jenkins combined for 34 quarterback hits.

The saving grace has been the turnovers. Capers sees quarterbacks throwing more quick passes. As a byproduct, the Packers lead the league with 13 interceptions. Opponent passer rating, which is arguably the most important defensive stat other than points allowed, is a solid ninth at 79.3.

"A lot of these quarterbacks are supposed to get the ball out of their hands and not to take the sack," Capers said. "But I think if quarterbacks are going to get the ball out of their hands, and not take a sack, you're going to see a lot more interceptions. And right now we lead the league in interceptions. I think those things have a way of evening themselves out. Maybe we might not have the interceptions we do but we might have more sacks. It depends on who you're playing against."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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