Inspired by our colleagues at Arrowhead Pride, we're going to go through a brief series of posts previewing the Green Bay Packers' 2015 season. The theme of this series will be "90-50-10" - we'll present one thing that we believe has a 90% chance of happening this season, another that we believe has 50/50 odds, and a long shot that probably has about a 10% chance.
Note that these predictions assume that all key players remain healthy, something which is anything but a sure bet, but which cannot be quantified here.
Today, we'll break down the Packers' defense in this manner, as we look specifically at expectations for this season. Join us by giving your 90/50/10 predictions in the comments, and don't forget to explain why you are making those picks.
90% - Clay Matthews leads the team in sacks with double digits
This isn't really going out on too much of a limb, but with Matthews' shift inside on early downs it is worth mentioning. As has been well-documented, Matthews racked up 8.5 of his 11 sacks last year after moving inside, a sign that he is comfortable and effective both blitzing from the inside and rushing from his traditional outside position on passing downs when the Packers are in their dime defense.
If you thought that the split was just due to a little better luck at actually getting to the quarterback over the second half of the season, let me ease those doubts, Matthews' pass-rushing productivity on a per-snap basis increased noticeably after the bye week. In the first eight games, Matthews recorded 26 total pressures on 225 pass-rushing snaps, a rate of one pressure for every 8.6 pass-rush snaps. After the bye (and including playoffs), that rate dropped to one pressure for every pass-rush 6.3 snaps, with 32 pressures on 200 rushes. (Thanks to Pro Football Focus for those numbers.)
Thus, Matthews didn't just rack up more sacks when switching between inside and outside; he recorded more total pressures on fewer pass-rushing snaps as well. This bodes well for his impact in 2015, and he should hit at least 10 sacks for the fifth time if he stays healthy.
50% - Packers are among top-5 NFL teams in turnovers forced
The Packers' defense has a reputation for forcing turnovers that has slipped somewhat over the past few years. In Dom Capers' first three seasons in Green Bay (2009-2011), the team led the NFL in turnovers in two of those seasons and finished sixth during the Super Bowl season in 2010. Since then they have slipped, finishing 18th, 22nd, and 9th in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively.
However, that big jump in 2014 cannot be ignored, and I believe this team is on the precipice of being an elite turnover machine once again. With a rangy free safety manning the back half of the defense and cornerbacks with excellent ball skills across the secondary, interceptions should be a common theme. Similarly, the Packers' pass rush should be solid once again with all of the key players returning from last year (and B.J. Raji providing some push from the nose as well).
All that, plus the likelihood that the Packers' offense will be spotting the defense leads early on, leads me to believe that this unit has a great shot of being a turnover machine this year.
10% - Casey Hayward does not start at cornerback in Week 1
This boils down to experience and track record. Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said recently that he has "a bunch of guys that don't know how to play football right now," referring in all likelihood to his two rookies, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, and even some of the younger players like Demetri Goodson.
That statement speaks volumes, because Hayward most definitely does know how to play football. For Whitt, the men who know their assignments and understand the NFL game will be the ones who get playing time. It is unlikely that any of these young players will be able to get on Hayward's level by the end of training camp, especially with the Packers' decision to gear their playbook installations towards the veterans rather than rookies. If Hayward remains healthy for much or all of camp, we doubt he gets unseated.