Blitzes Coming Up Short in Producing Results

While the Packers' run defense is better and they've produced a bushel of turnovers, the sack total is on par with last year. Our Matt Tevsh blitzed coach Mike McCarthy during Wednesday's news conference to talk about the lack of pressure.

The Packers' transition to a 3-4 defensive scheme has been a success in two of three key areas.

Number one, the Packers have been productive in creating turnovers. Seventeen takeaways through seven games have led to a league-leading plus-12 turnover margin.

Number two, the Packers have been effective in stopping the run. Allowing 99.4 rushing yards per game, they rank ninth in the league in run defense compared to 26th a season ago (131.6 yards per game).

The third area, putting pressure on the quarterback, is where the Packers are lacking. Entering Sunday's game at Tampa Bay, they have just 12 sacks, tied for fifth-worst in the NFL. That number is right on pace with last season's total of 27, which ranked eighth-worst.

New defensive coordinator Dom Capers' blitzing calls worked wonders in the preseason and in the opener against the Bears, but since then, they have had little impact.

"It depends on how you define production," coach Mike McCarthy said on Wednesday. "You have blitzes versus the run calls. Anytime you have a blitz versus a run call, there is a little bit of a big/little philosophy or mentality. It could be a big play, but it also could create seams for you, so I think we do a good job there as far as the blitz calls versus the runs. Versus the passes, I think there is a bit of a misconception that when you call blitzes, guys are supposed to run free and hit the quarterback. That's not really practical or realistic. It's fun when it happens, but also the offense is working on those things. It's no different than what we do every day on offense."

Last Sunday was a good example of what McCarthy is talking about. The Packers held the NFL's top running back, Adrian Peterson, to less than 100 yards and 4.0 yards per carry for the second game this season. Peterson, did, however, gash the Packers against blitzes for 33- and 21-yard runs. Other than that, the Packers pretty much bottled him up on the ground.

Against the pass, the Packers sent more pressure at Brett Favre than the previous meeting with the Vikings, but with little success. Unofficially, they blitzed seven times (in 28 pass attempts). Only one of those blitzes produced an impact, that being when linebacker Nick Barnett got his hand on a Favre pass in the third quarter that fluttered into the air and was nearly intercepted.

"The thing about Minnesota is that he's (Favre) been doing a good job getting the ball out of his hand quick," said nickel defensive back Tramon Williams, who played the majority of the defensive snaps in the game. "We haven't got as many sacks as we thought we'd get, but we're getting pressure still."

In two games against the Vikings, the Packers failed to record a sack, much to the chagrin of Packers fans. When they needed to get to him the most, like on their last blitz of the game, they got beat. Throwing to the side where cornerback Charles Woodson and Barnett blitzed, Favre hit Bernard Berrian for a clinching 16-yard touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter. When safety Nick Collins was a fraction late getting over, Berrian caught the pass and went into the end zone to push the lead from five to 12 with 3:48 remaining.


Nick Barnett has one of the Packers' sacks off blitzes.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
"Really, when you play an experienced quarterback or even an experienced center or an experienced protection unit, however they communicate the starting point of their protection, it's really an illusion to go out and think you're going to fool people all of the time," McCarthy said. "It's not the fact that you are going to fool offenses. You might want to make them declare a different way and you're throwing hot. You may win the declaration aspect of it, but the reality of it is to try to create an edge, a better leverage point for your defense on their offensive player. That's really what it comes down to. It doesn't matter if you're rushing four and playing coverage or if you rush four that is disguising a pressure scheme or pressure five. It's about winning one-on-ones, whether you are run blocking or you're in a pass rush."

Not since Week 1, when the Bears' Jay Cutler threw two interceptions against Packers blitzes, have extra rushers produced much if any impact. Only two sacks since then have been generated by blitzers. Capers has predominantly brought inside linebackers (Barnett, Brandon Chillar, A.J. Hawk) or a cornerback (Al Harris, Woodson) as the extra rusher, but in seven games, only Barnett and Harris have been able to record a sack. Safeties Atari Bigby and Collins have been used infrequently as pass rushers, though each has battled injuries (Bigby missed three games).

Outside of rookie linebacker Clay Matthews, the Packers have much the same personnel on defense from a year ago under coordinator Bob Sanders. Perhaps that personnel just lacks a knack for blitzing, because even when Sanders turned up the pressure last season, the Packers gained little advantage over their opponents.

"As far getting the edges, winning the one-on-ones, I think we're improving," McCarthy said. "What's exciting to me about our defense is the production that we have gained at this point. We have hit the primary target. Our number one target was to be better in run defense, so we're doing a better job there, and I think we'll continue to grow in our pressure packages throughout our other situations."

Outside linebacker Aaron Kampman leads the team with 14 quarterback hits, according to official game statistics. Next on the list is Cullen Jenkins with only five. Combined, blitzers have produced only five quarterback hits.

In an effort to generate more pressure of late, the Packers have looked to their outside linebackers. Kampman has been freed up to rush from a three-point stance more often, and Matthews has been cut loose as an every-down player. Matthews is second on the team in sacks with three and is third in quarterback hits with four.

Four Packers opponents this season — the Lions, Browns, Rams and Vikings — are among the top half of all NFL teams in sacks allowed, making the Packers' lack of production look even worse. This week's opponent, the Buccaneers, are 18th, but the Packers are hoping they can turn things around against rookie quarterback Josh Freeman, who will be making his first NFL start.

"The sacks aren't showing up now, but they're going to show up somewhere this season," said Williams. "It's one of those deals where we're on a streak where we're not getting sacks right now, but they're going to come."


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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com


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