Outside Linebackers Lack Impact Needed In 3-4

A terrible pass rush actually got worse in the final seven games, setting off the calamity that ended in Sunday's playoff loss. Among the 11 teams running the 3-4 scheme, no team produced fewer sacks from its OLBs than Packers. We break it down.

Without the proper ammunition, Dom Capers essentially raised the white flag of surrender.

After a week of talking about the necessity of getting Giants quarterback Eli Manning "off his spot" and turning a precise pocket passer into a player who would need to make plays while on the move, the Green Bay Packers' defensive coordinator opted for a conservative game plan in Sunday's playoff loss.

At the risk of oversimplification, a defensive coordinator has two choices in every passing situation: pressure or cover.

Capers prefers to pressure, but there's little sense is sending five or six pass rushers if they can't beat their blocker. So, Capers said he went with a three-man rush more than he has all season, especially on first and second down.

It didn't work. Manning, with enough time in the pocket to help general manager Ted Thompson scout the outside linebacker prospects the Packers surely will choose from in April's draft, completed 21-of-33 passes for 330 yards. He was sacked once in 36 dropbacks.

If there's one overriding reason why the Packers blew their chance at winning back-to-back Super Bowls, it's that the pass rush went from overwhelming strength to overwhelming weakness.

Under Capers, the Packers recorded a sack on 6.22 percent of passing plays in 2009, the 12th-best figure in the league, before shooting up to fourth with a sack on 7.97 percent of passing plays in 2010. In 2011, the Packers recorded a sack on just 4.28 percent of passing plays, easily the worst figure in the league.

Even with nowhere to go but up, Green Bay's pass rush got worse down the stretch. Beginning with the Thanksgiving game at Detroit and including Sunday's game, the Packers recorded six sacks in their final seven games encompassing 282 passing plays. That's a feeble 2.13 percent. In those games, the Packers allowed an average of 318.7 net passing yards per game. In the first 10 games, they allowed 289.0 net passing yards per game.

"Well, it's going to be one of the major issues," Capers said on Monday. "One of the things that we'll do is, we'll be back here in a couple weeks and we'll start our scheme evaluation. Obviously, the first two years, we felt pretty good that our pass rush had improved. I think we were second behind the Steelers in sacks the first two years. That area fell off. A big part of our philosophy is trying to disrupt the quarterback."

In Capers' defense, the pass rush starts with the outside linebackers. The Packers got just 12 from the position in the regular season, with Clay Matthews registering six, Erik Walden three and Brad Jones, Frank Zombo and Vic So'oto one apiece. Among the 11 teams using the 3-4 as their primary scheme, Dallas' DeMarcus Ware (19.5) and San Francisco's Aldon Smith (14.0, not including the playoffs) had more sacks by themselves.

Of the other 10 teams running the 3-4, nine teams' leading sacker finished with more than Matthews' six. Moreover, three of those teams' No. 2 sackers (Pittsburgh, Miami and Washington) had more than Matthews' total. In all, 21 outside linebackers in 3-4 schemes bagged more sacks than Walden.

Of the 3-4 teams, four made the playoffs: Green Bay, Houston, Pittsburgh and San Francisco. Counting only the regular-season games, the Texans got 25 sacks, the 49ers 23, Steelers 22 and Packers 12 from their outside linebackers.

"It's kind of the premise of the 3-4 defense," Capers said. "Those two guys outside set the tone."

While the free-agent loss of Cullen Jenkins played a role here, too, the Packers' lack of impact plays from the primary playmaking position in the scheme had a domino effect. That was seen mostly in the secondary, where Capers was forced to practically do away with press coverage — the strength of Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams and Sam Shields — for fear they'd get beaten deep because the pass rush wouldn't get home. The loss of Nick Collins played a role there, too, because of his elite athletic ability and football intellect.

"You have to look at it from a coach's perspective," Williams said on Monday. "Maybe he couldn't the things he'd done because he didn't have the personnel he had."

One of the players high on the Packers' radar during the draft was Brooks Reed, the long-haired, high-motor player from Arizona who drew some comparisons to Matthews, was selected No. 42 overall, 10 picks after the Packers took offensive tackle Derek Sherrod. Reed finished with six sacks in the regular season (16 games, 11 starts) and added 3.5 in two playoff games. In the fourth round, Arizona took Texas linebacker Sam Acho — a Packers-type player as the winner of the academic version of the Heisman Trophy — and he led the Cardinals with seven sacks (16 games, 10 starts).

Since drafting Matthews (first round) and Jones (seventh round) in 2009, Thompson has drafted only one outside linebacker: Reed's Arizona teammate, Ricky Elmore, a sixth-round pick who didn't make the team and spent the year out of football.

"Well, I think those are all things that we'll evaluate," Capers said about the outside linebacker position. "Obviously, our first objective is to look at what we have and find ways to get more pressure with the guys that we have. When the time comes in terms of adding people, we'll certainly address that. But when we come back in a couple weeks, we're going to evaluate everything from top to bottom in terms of what we think it's going to take to getting back to playing defense the way we did the first two years around here."

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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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