Lackluster Pass Rush Is Giant Concern

Eli Manning, who is one of the toughest quarterbacks to sack, will take aim at a Packers defense getting almost no pass rush from anyone other than Clay Matthews. Matthews statistically remains one of the best pass rushers in the game. It's the lack of impact elsewhere that's alarming.

Charged with making chicken salad out of chicken feathers with what statistically is the worst pass defense in NFL history with the playoffs at hand, Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers has few palatable options at his disposal when it comes to improving the situation through pressure.

The Packers' inability to put a decent amount of pressure on the quarterback in the regular season played a part in their setting a league record for passing yards allowed (4,796, an average of 299.8 per game) and a team record for total yards (average of 411.6 per game).

That's an enormous red flag with Eli Manning coming to town for Sunday's divisional game and potential matchups against Drew Brees in the NFC Championship Game and Tom Brady in the Super Bowl.

Manning finished with the sixth-most passing yards in NFL history, ringing up 4,933 yards and 29 touchdowns — including 347 yards and three touchdowns when the teams met on Dec. 4.

While Manning was sacked 28 times — 20th most in the league — Green Bay finished the regular season with only 29 sacks. That is its second-lowest total in the last 21 years. Only two teams recorded fewer sacks, Tennessee with 28 and Tampa Bay with 23.

What's more, the team-leading six sacks by left outside linebacker Clay Matthews, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, is the fewest by a Packer in a full regular season since the NFL made sacks an official statistic in 1982.

The coaching staff has gone out of its way to say Matthews is having a productive season, and the numbers back up that contention. According to Pro Football Focus, Matthews recorded a combined 67 sacks (six), hits (21) and pressures (40). That figure tied for fifth in the NFL behind the Rams' Chris Long (83), Dolphins' Cameron Wake (81), Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware (72) and Bears' Julius Peppers (70). Matthews, of course, didn't play in Week 17. If he had, he almost certainly would have finished third.

Moreover, according to Pro Football Focus, Matthews' 21 quarterback hits led the league, ahead of Wake's 20.

The NFL's official keepers of statistics, STATS, had Matthews finishing fourth in combined pressures/hits with 38.5, trailing Wake's 43.5, Ware's 40.5 and Hali's 39.5.

To further the point on Matthews' production, the team's coaches had Matthews down for 53 quarterback hits in 15 games. In 20 games last season (including playoffs), Matthews had 50 hits, according to the team's count.

So, Matthews isn't the problem. The problem lies everywhere else.

Every other outside linebacker on the team combined for six sacks, with Erik Walden's three and one apiece from Brad Jones, Vic So'oto and Frank Zombo. Last year, in 14 total starts encompassing regular season and playoffs, Zombo (five) and Walden (four) combined for nine.

Walden started the first 15 games, but his production just didn't cut it on a defensive scheme that's predicated on the outside linebackers making game-changing plays. In the finale against Detroit, Jones and Zombo had a sack apiece. However, the defense's five quarterback hits in that game (by the coaches' count) means the Packers have had just 15 hits in the last four games combined. In contrast, the Packers had 13 quarterback hits in Week 3 against Chicago and Week 9 against San Diego, as well as 12 hits in back-to-back games against Detroit and the Giants.

"We're going to get those guys reps this week and take a good look, see how things go and make a decision on who we decide to go with," Capers said of finding pressure from the outside linebacker position. "I think those guys are guys we can roll through there to try to keep guys fresh. All of them have played other than Vic; Vic hasn't played much. But, Brad Jones certainly has, Frank Zombo has, and Erik Walden has."

Meanwhile, the defensive line has had almost zero impact. B.J. Raji and Jarius Wynn have that unit's only sacks, with three apiece. Last year, Cullen Jenkins had seven sacks and Raji 6.5 as the linemen combined for 18 sacks in the regular season — three times more than this year's total. Obviously, the Packers haven't come close to offsetting Jenkins' free-agent defection to Philadelphia. Wynn, who showed promise early in the season, got all of his sacks in the first three games. Mike Neal has no sacks and two quarterback hits.

With almost nothing from the defensive line and the right outside linebacker position, Capers has been forced to blitz. He's sent five or more on 43 percent of pass plays, according to his count, compared to 37 percent in 2009 and 35 percent in 2010.

The pressure hasn't worked with any consistency, though, putting a struggling secondary behind the eight-ball regardless of what Capers calls.

According to Pro Football Focus, A.J. Hawk blitzes on 27.9 percent of pass plays, which ranks third among inside linebackers, and Desmond Bishop blitzes 23.6 percent of the time, which ranks eighth. Bishop has five sacks, four hits and nine hurries in 12-plus games and Hawk one sack, three hits and 15 hurries in 14 games.

"I think he's one of our top playmakers," Capers said of Bishop. "The more playmakers you have out there, the better chances there are two or three plays in the game that they're going to impact. That's what we've been able to do. There's been two, three, four plays during the course of the game that we impact it, and those plays maybe give us two or three more series. If you can give our offense two or three more series, that's a pretty good proposition."


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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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