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How the pass rush affects coverage: Perry, Matthews losses potentially devastating for Packers

The Packers' pass rush and coverage appear to be entirely dependent on each other. Can the young DBs keep up their great play with Nick Perry -- and potentially Clay Matthews -- out of the lineup?

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Recently, Devin brought up and intriguing question: Does the pass rush drive the pass coverage, or does the pass coverage allow for a good pass rush? Without a doubt, it's the definition of a chicken or the egg question. They definitely go hand-in-hand and when one is doing well, the other greatly benefits. The Packers' secondary has undergone a youth movement this year and appears to be well improved over last season, especially in terms of stopping big plays. The Packers' pass rush has also improved over last season, but has still been very inconsistent.

The question becomes, do the two overlap? When the pass rush is doing well, does the coverage succeed? And when the coverage fails, does the pass rush go equally stagnant? It's an interesting question to ask, and with injuries across the secondary all season, as well as recent news that Clay Matthews could miss time while Nick Perry is already done for the season, it is an important question to answer. Below, we look at how the pass coverage and pass rush have done each game this season, and the importance of Matthews and Perry to the pass rush.

The inconsistency of the Packers' pass rush is not anything new, but unlike last year the offense is not scoring at record paces to help mask some of the issues on defense. Below, in Table 1, is a table of pass rush stats from each game from Pro Football Focus.

Table 1: Pass rush stats

Game Sacks QB Hits QB Hurries Pass Attempts Getting to QB Rate Points allowed Result
49ers 4 1 3 26 30.77% 30 L
Bears 7 4 15 27 81.48% 10 W
Seahawks 1 2 12 21 61.9% 14 L
Saints 2 0 5 54 12.96% 27 W
Colts 4 5 18 55 40% 30 L
Texans 3 4 3 38 15.79% 24 W
Rams 3 4 3 34 17.65% 20 W
Jags 2 2 7 49 18.37% 15 W
Cards 2 5 8 46 21.74% 17 W

Based on personal observations, I would classify the defensive performances like this:

Good: Bears, Seahawks, Texans, Rams
Average: Colts, Jags, Cards
Bad: 49ers, Saints

Those are certainly subjective, but it helps to organize the numbers in this post. The getting to the QB rate was defined as sacks plus hurries divided by pass attempts.

The numbers from Table 1 show that sacks alone do not necessarily correlate to wins. The Packers' two most dominating defensive performances this season, vs the Bears and vs the Seahawks, provided the highest and lowest sack totals of the season at seven and one, respectively, and the team went 1-1 in those games. The three highest rates for getting to the quarterback produced a record of 1-2, however in all three of those games the offense was non-existent for at least an entire half. The five lowest rates of getting to the quarterback all produced wins, an odd stat to say the least. There is probably something more to that than just the pass rush, which will be discussed later in the post.

As you probably know, pass rush is only half of the passing defense. Table 2, below, shows the passing stats for each game of the season against the Packers' defense

Table 2: Passing stats against the Packers defense
Game Attempts Completions Comp. Percentage Passing Yards Yards/Pass Result
49ers 26 20 76.92 211 8.12 L
Bears 27 11 40.74 126 4.67 W
Seahawks 21 10 47.62 130 6.19 L
Saints 54 35 64.81 446 8.26 W
Colts 55 31 56.36 362 6.58 L
Texans 38 22 57.89 255 6.71 W
Rams 34 21 61.76 255 7.5 W
Jags 49 27 55.1 303 6.18 W
Cards 46 23 50 306 6.65 W

Table 2: Passing stats against the Packers defense (Continued)
Game TD INT PFF Pass Coverage Grade Total Points OPP T.O.P. Result
49ers 2 0 -5.1 30 33:00 L
Bears 1 4 7.1 10 27:49 W
Seahawks 2 0 6 14 26:21 L
Saints 3 0 -1.5 27 30:28 W
Colts 2 1 11.4 30 35:16 L
Texans 0 3 4.2 24 32:01 W
Rams 1 1 4 20 27:02 W
Jags 1 0 0 15 38:48 W
Cards 1 1 1.5 17 26:30 W

Much like with the pass rush stats in Table 1, the coverage and passing stats in Table 2 do not necessarily correlate good performance to wins. The three best coverage grades from Pro Football Focus resulted in a win-loss record of 1-2. The same can be said for opponent's time of possession. The team that had the highest time of possession against the Packers was the Jaguars, who lost. While the team that had the worst time of possession against the Packers, the Seahawks, "beat" the Packers. It should be noted that the teams with the second and third best time of possession so far this season against the Packers have both won. So far this season when the Packers have allowed less than 250 passing yards, they are 1-2, but when they allow more than 250 passing yards, they are 6-1. Again, records that do not seem to make sense. Part of the passing game that does seem to correlate correctly with wins and losses are touchdown passes allowed and interceptions. The Packers are 1-3 when allowing multiple touchdown passes this year and 2-0 when intercepting multiple passes, which makes sense.

As seen above, good stats for pass rush and coverage have not directly resulted in a win so far this season. However, that is due in large part to the game of football requiring your offense to score more points than the defense allows to win the game. Once you have successfully wrapped your head around that ridiculously complicated concept, take a look at Table 3, which shows how the pass rush and coverage has performed in the subjective good, average, and bad defensive games.

Table 3: Per game average pass rush for varying defensive performances

Sacks QB Hits QB Hurries Attempts Getting to QB %
Good Defense 3.5 3.5 8.25 30 44.21
Average Defense 2.67 4 11 50 26.7
Bad Defense 3 0.5 4 40 21.87

Table 4: Per game average Packers' defensive passing stats for varying defensive performances

Att. Comp. Comp. Percentage Passing Yards Yards/Pass TD INT PFF Pass Coverage Grade
Good Defense 30 16 52 191.5 6.27 1 2 5.325
Average Defense 50 27 53.82 323.67 6.47 1.33 0.67 4.3
Bad Defense 40 27.5 70.87 328.5 8.19 2.5 0 -3.3

Tables 3 and 4 show that unlike the straight up win-loss record, dividing the defensive games up by performance does show correlation to success that would be expected. How well the defense performed was directly related to how often the pass rush got to the quarterback, the completion percentage allowed, total passing yards allowed, yards per pass allowed, passing touchdowns allowed, interceptions forced, and the overall coverage grade. That is pretty much across the board in pass rush statistics and coverage statistics that fluctuate together. When the pass rush was good, the coverage was good, when one was average, the other was average, and when one was bad, the other was bad. The win-loss record also reflects accordingly with records of 3-1, 2-1, and 1-1, respectively. While coverage numbers in every category correlated with how the defense performed, the types of pressure the defense put on opposing quarterbacks tended to flucuate a little. In the end, all that mattered was that the defense got consistent pressure on the quarterback, it did not matter if it was a sack or hurry. The Packers get to the quarterback on 44 percent of pass plays during good defensive games, compared to 22 and 27 percent in bad and average games.

While these numbers may not definitively show whether the pass rush creates good coverage or if coverage allows for a strong pass rush, they do show that when the Packers can consistently do one of them well, they do the other one well too. Unfortunately, they might not be able to do either well with Charles Woodson, Matthews and Perry out. While the absence of Woodson might be made up by the young players in the secondary, the pass rush of Matthews and Perry might be hard, if not impossible, to replace. Tables 5, 6, and 7, below, show just how important Matthews and Perry are to the already suspect pass rush.

Table 5: Clay Matthews vs every other Packer

Sacks QB Hits QB Hurries Pass Rushes Getting to QB %
Clay Matthews 10 9 23 311 10.61
Everyone Else 20 18 51 1,511.00 4.7

Table 6: Matthews and Perry vs every other Packer

Sacks QB Hits QB Hurries Pass Rushes Getting to QB %
Nick Perry 2 0 8 105 9.52
Matthews and Perry 12 9 31 416 10.34
Everyone Else 18 18 43 1406 4.34

Table 7: Percentage of pass rushes getting to the QB

Matthews 46.48
Matthews + Perry 60.56

If the importance of Matthews to the Packers' pass rush was not evident before, it should be now. He's accounted for a third of the Packers' sacks, quarterback hits, and quarterback pressures, all the while getting to the quarterback on 11 percent of dropbacks. That's two and a half times as often as the rest of the team combined. Roughly half of all pass rushes in which Green Bay got to the quarterback this season were created by Matthews.

The good news is that Nick Perry seems to be pretty good at getting to the quarterback at a high rate. In limited snaps, Perry got to the quarterback on roughly 10 percent of pass rushes, a rate that is close to Matthews' for first on the team and by far and away the second best rate on the team. Unfortunately for the Packers, he will be put on I.R. after having surgery on his wrist and will probably be out for the remainder of the season.

Perry and Matthews account for 40 percent of all the Packers' sacks, 33 percent of all quarterback hits, 42 percent of all quarterback pressures, and 61 percent of all Packer pass rushes that got to the quarterback. For all intents and purposes, they are the pass rush for the Packers. Add to that the fact that other players will no longer have the added benefit of Matthews/Perry drawing attention of extra offensive lineman and it is sure to get even uglier.

If Matthews misses any games at all, the Packers' pass rush could be non-existent if someone else does not step up. Taking the seemingly one-for-one success correlation of pass rush to coverage seen above, the Packers could be in for a long game(s) without Matthews. The first halves of the Colts, Cardinals, and Jaguars games are all prime examples of how good the defense is with a solid pass rush and the second halves of those games are good examples of how poor the defense as a whole is when the pass rush disappears.

Here's hoping to a speedy bye week recovery, Clay.