It’s a common offensive mantra at all levels of football: get the ball in the hands of your best player early and often. On the defensive side of the ball, it gets a bit more complicated in how to best utilize your defensive player and oftentimes, teams struggle to do so.
Against Seattle on Sunday, the Green Bay Packers found a way to get their best defensive player Mike Daniels on the field more often on critical downs. The result? Disruption and dominance.
In 2016, Daniels was among the best run-stuffers in the league according to the Football Outsiders Almanac. The FO Almanac ranked the veteran lineman third in the league in run stop percentage — that is, the number of running plays Daniels prevented a “success” by the offense (45 percent of needed yards on first down, 60 percent on second down, 100 percent on third or fourth down). As FO noted, Daniels’ strength and ability to shed tacklers has always made him a vital part of a third-and-short defense:
Daniels has developed into a consistent, well-rounded player who doesn’t get big sack numbers but consistently wins his matchups. Last year, he even turned into a disruptive force against the run, posting the best run defense charting numbers of his career.
Yet, perhaps what has prevented Daniels from earning his first Pro Bowl ticket the past few seasons is his number of third down snaps (and sacks resulting from them) in pass-heavy situations. Whether it was to get more speed on the field or keep the 310-pound Daniels fresh, Green Bay shied away from utilizing him on a drive’s most pivotal play when compared to other great defensive tackles around the league in 2016.
3rd Down Snaps...— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) June 2, 2017
Mike Daniels - 49%
G.Atkins - 216/231 (93.5%)
A.Donald - 206/227 (90.7%)
F.Cox - 182/213 (85%)
J.Casey - 174/213 (81.7%) https://t.co/MsL9RBqhaT
But that doesn’t mean Daniels hasn’t been an effective pass rusher. According to the FO Almanac, he finished the 2016 season with two more quarterback hurries than Nick Perry (23-21) despite only 58 more defensive snaps (664-606). Theoretically, with more passing down opportunities, Daniels’ four-sack, eight quarterback hit totals from a year ago could be much higher.
Daniels played 77% of 3rd down snaps vs SEA (wayyyy up from his 49% in 2016)— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) September 12, 2017
Something I will be most certainly be tracking all season long https://t.co/txaHFLo6va
The numbers spoke for themselves: seven total tackles, 1.5 sacks, another tackle for a loss, one forced fumble, and four quarterback hits. The forced fumble reversed field position and led to the Packers’ first score. Meanwhile, one of the QB hits was quietly among the most important plays of the game, as Daniels pressured Russell Wilson and prevented the quarterback from having enough time to connect with a wide open Tyler Lockett for a touchdown. While Seattle’s offensive line leaves much to be desired, it was undoubtedly an enormous day for the sixth-year pro.
Furthermore, the disruptive play of Daniels allowed Green Bay to rush fewer personnel and stick its linebackers and safeties in coverage more often. That adjustment in scheme helped limit Seattle to just 225 total yards of offense, including a dismal 135 passing yards and 3-for-12 third down conversion rate.
By my quick charting... I counted 8 blitzes on 32 dropbacks from Packers defense vs Wilson...— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) September 12, 2017
Much less than a traditional Capers Sunday
Of course, it was a collective achievement by the Green Bay defense to keep Wilson and Seattle in check, but allowing Daniels to be more active in the pass rush certainly helped.
How Green Bay chooses to involve Daniels in the defense against Matt Ryan and a potent Atlanta passing offense next week remains to be seen. But the early returns from week one indicate Dom Capers and the Packers shouldn’t change much of their gameplan heading into Sunday night.