When the Green Bay Packers (5-3) face the Arizona Cardinals (4-4), the top two pass rushing teams in the NFL — at least based on sack totals — will collide.
Each defense enters the game with 26 sacks, playing 3-4 schemes inspired by the Pittsburgh Steelers. But while the Packers have relied heavily on outside linebacker Clay Matthews (nine sacks) to inflate their team total, the Cardinals have been much more effective with interior blitzes to inflate theirs.
Inside linebacker Daryl Washington, a third-year player out of TCU, is having a monster season with eight sacks, one more than the combined total of Sam Acho and O'Brien Schofield, the Cardinals' starting duo outside.
"Their best pressure, the most successful one they've had this year, is to bring those two inside guys and cross them in the middle," said guard T.J. Lang. "I think you create a lot of trouble for offenses, especially if everybody's not on the same page. That's something we've been studying hard. (It's) kind of unheard of for an inside linebacker to have eight sacks through eight games, so they do a great job at it."
Former Packers linebacker Paris Lenon (two sacks, seven hurries) is Washington's partner inside. Lenon, according to ProFootballFocus.com statistics, is No. 1 in the league in pass rush snaps among inside linebackers coming after the quarterback 34.8 percent of the time that he is in on passing plays. Washington is No. 3 in pass rush snaps coming 27.1 percent of the time.
"We'll spend a lot of time on their different middle dog cross packages and so forth. I think it's a real strength," said head coach Mike McCarthy. "It's very common — everything that we've seen on film is what our defense does. They do it very well. Their two inside guys are impact players. Their outside rush guys are good players. Their defense, as you go all the way through, has impact players. But their scheme is very challenging. I mean, it's 38 percent just in normal down-and-distance pressure, and if you go through all the different segments and different situations, you're pushing 50 percent. Some segments are two out of three plays pressure. It's an up-tempo game and the way we've talked about it offensively, we want to play up tempo, they want to play up tempo."
The inside rush will challenge quarterback Aaron Rodgers' pre-snap reads, the running backs' blitz pickup, and the communication of the interior offensive line.
"A lot of times it's tough to see," said guard Josh Sitton. "They do a good job disguising it. So, we rely on Aaron a lot. He's real good at recognizing defenses. So, a lot will be on him and me and T.J. inside being able to see that.
"We've got to be mentally strong first and then worry about beating guys one-on-one."
Fortunately, the Packers have one of the best quarterbacks in the league at beating the blitz. Again this season, Rodgers is tearing it up with a passer rating of 121.6 and a league-leading 11 touchdowns when the opposition sends extra rushers.
Then again, the Cardinals should be salivating at the fact that Rodgers is the most sacked quarterback in the league (28 times), just ahead of Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb (27), who has missed the last two games with rib and shoulder injuries. In Kolb's absence, an immobile John Skelton has been sacked 12 times, making the Cardinals the most sacked team in the NFL.
Both starting tackles for the Cardinals — Jeremy Bridges and Levi Brown — are on injured reserve. In their spots, backups D'Anthony Batiste and rookie Bobby Massie have struggled mightily. The two have combined to give up a whopping 25 sacks and 68 hurries according to ProFootballFocus.com. They have also been penalized 12 times.
By comparison, Packers tackles Bryan Bulaga and Marshall Newhouse, who have played poorly in spots this season, have allowed just nine sacks and 28 hurries together.
"It's a variety of things," Packers linebacker Erik Walden said of why the Cardinals' tackles have struggled. "It's power and speed. Anytime you've got a lineman (that's struggling) and you got a nice bull (rush) and then you also got speed to combine, it always, I feel like, will give them trouble. So, there's some areas where they haven't been very good."
With inside linebackers Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith on injured reserve and safety Charles Woodson missing his first game with a broken collarbone last Sunday, the Packers are without their best blitzers. Instead, they will lean on their defensive line and outside linebackers, who have accounted for 19.5 of the 26 team sacks.
That has Walden thinking it could be a big day for he and Matthews.
"Yeah, but we've got to make sure we prepare and are ready to go," said Walden. "We're fully aware (of the Cardinals' problems), so it's something we'll try to take advantage of."
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org