Was Packers’ Pass Rush to Blame for Defensive Woes?
Green Bay’s defensive backs had a bad year in 2017. They allowed 3,789 passing yards, or 236.8 yards per game. Though they ranked 23rd in the league, it was actually an improvement of over 500 yards from the 2016 season, when they finished 31st in passing yards surrendered.
We know the cornerbacks and safeties did not perform well and they are the one who usually get most of the blame. But some say they were hung out to dry by the team’s front seven, who failed to sufficiently pressure the quarterback. Without pressure, receivers had copious amounts of time to get open, and quarterbacks were able to focus on their receivers without constantly being distracted by onrushing defenders.
When assessing a pass rush, too much emphasis can be put on sack numbers. I try to look for pressure (or “hurries”) statistics, but they are hard to come by. Various analytical sources will publish them sporadically, but not on an annual basis.
Pro Football Focus did issue a study of “pressures by the front seven” for 2017 and it’s pretty informative.
Those who argue that harassing the quarterback is the key to great pass defense can point to the team that is well ahead of the rest of the league: the Super Bowl winning Eagles had 35 more pressures than anyone else according to PFF. And the team with 50 fewer pressures than anyone else was the winless Browns. The Browns’ 142 pressures in 2017 was less than half of the Eagles’ 309.
Over two-thirds of the league is closely bunched in the middle. The Packers were one of 10 teams with from 209 to 219. The league’s best pass defense, Minnesota, is in a nine-team bunch having from 233 to 250 pressures.
PFF calculated that Minnesota had 234 pressures and Green Bay had 218, in 2017. That’s a difference of only one pressure per game. Though Minnesota had only the 14th best pressure stats, their talented defensive backs made up for that deficiency.
Minnesota Versus Green Bay
The defenses of the two NFC North rivals makes for some interesting comparisons. Each team had a Pro Bowl defensive line pass rusher in 2017: the Packers’ Mike Daniels and the Vikings’ Everson Griffen.
The Vikings had the edge at the edge, with Anthony Barr, named to the last three Pro Bowls, outperforming the Packers’ Clay Matthews.
The Vikings also had the better defensive backfield, which included two All-Pros: cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safety Harrison Smith. Not only that, but they just continued their pass defense focus by using their first round pick on Central Florida cornerback Mike Hughes.
The Packers will need to improve in all three areas if they are to finish atop the NFC North.
Reasons for Optimism
The Packers’ front office has made a massive commitment – four high-round defensive back picks in two years – in trying to keep pace with Minnesota’s pass defense. Green Bay should close that gap in 2018, and if Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson live up to their lofty billing, Green Bay might overtake them as soon as 2019.
Beyond the players, however, the biggest hope for a resurgent defense might come from a man who doesn’t even get on the field. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is going to give the Packers’ defense an about-face: more pressure on the passer from more positions; more jamming of receivers at the line of scrimmage; more man-to-man coverage; tighter coverage; more balls contested in the air; more causing of turnovers.
Will the new-look defense be enough to return the Packers to contesting for a Super Bowl berth? Can such a turnaround be accomplished in one year? And even more daunting, can the transition happen so quickly that the Packers can prevail in week 2, when Minnesota invades Lambeau Field? Many Pettine adherents think so.