The biggest (only?) criticism about the vaunted New York Jets defense under Rex Ryan and Mike Pettine centered around the team’s lack of elite pass rushers. Just think what they could do if Darrelle Revis had a guy flying off the edge to cause havoc. The Jets spent considerable draft capital attempting to invest in edge push and never found anyone better than Calvin Pace, who was a solid player but nothing more.
Except it never mattered. Pettine continually innovated the defense, adapting it each week to the opponent and the strength of his players, and they remained a top passing defense every season he was in charge.
We’re seeing the same script play out in Green Bay, only fans haven’t quite realized how much better this defense is or why worrying about the outsider linebackers no longer serves as a worthy endeavor. Years of Dom Capers’ failings, fans’ disappointment with Nick Perry’s injuries, or Clay Matthews’ inconsistent play have jaded Packer Nation.
The 2018 Packers lead the league in sacks despite playing one fewer game than nearly half the league. They’re No. 1 in adjusted sack rate, No. 2 in third-down sacks, and No. 6 in pressure percentage. There’s nothing wrong with the Packers pass rush.
Let me repeat one more time for the people in the back: empirically and objectively, the 2018 Green Bay Packers have an elite pass rush. One of the best in football if not the best. Who cares what Clay Matthews or Nick Perry are or aren’t doing?
An incredible 15 players on defense have a sack this season. Pettine schemes free rushers as well as anyone in the league and that can be a cure for a lack of top end edge rush. Go back and look at those outstanding defenses from the Cardinals under Todd Bowles. The edge rushers are big, lumbering run defenders, but Arizona consistently dialed up blitz packages to get free rushers as well as any team in the NFL. It wasn’t all Patrick Peterson and the rest of that Arizona defense was full of just average to above average guys outside of Calais Campbell and the healthy games from Tyrann Mathieu. Much like Pettine’s Jets, the Cardinals didn’t need Chandler Jones to be a great defense.
That’s not to say a great player coming off the edge wouldn’t help. Sure it would. It would allow Pettine to take his foot off the pedal as a blitzer; the Packers are among league leaders in bringing five or more players. And the counter would be to say Green Bay would be able to more consistently get home with four, leaving them less vulnerable on the back end.
In a vacuum, that’s true in theory.
Go read any story about Pettine or Rex Ryan. Find the archives from the early Dom Capers days in Green Bay. Players love to play in an attacking defense. It’s not going to excite anyone to to rush four and drop seven every possession. It takes elite player talent for that and we know the Packers don’t have that, though they’re on their way with young stars like Jaire Alexander and Kenny Clark. The Seahawks could do that with the Legion of Boom because they had freaks all over the field.
There’s an inherent value in employing the kind of scheme the Packers have maximized this season just from an attitude standpoint. This defense has an identity, a strength. They’re the best blitzing team in football, confusing offensive linemen and quarterbacks alike. Pettine frustrated and confused Sean McVay and Jared Goff and a week later Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels. The Patriots literally had to run trick plays to move the ball against a banged up Packers defense.
The slow starts on defense have regularly come as a result of passivity. Coming out of the bye, Pettine made the adjustment and started coming after quarterbacks from the opening whistle. Second-half domination against Washington and Detroit were the result of similar, aggressive halftime adjustments. When this defense is flying around, crowding the line of scrimmage and threatening to come from anywhere, they’ve been really, really good this season.
Any concern trolling about leaving the secondary vulnerable on the back end also doesn’t fit with the reality. The Packers are now inside the top-10 in passing defense when adjusting for opponent according to Football Outsiders. They’re eighth in allowing first downs through the air, ninth in passing touchdowns, plus fifth in yards per game and completion percentage. Even without Kevin King for much of the season, with two rookies playing key roles in the secondary, and without a singular edge rush talent, the Green Bay passing defense went from one of the worst in football last season to one of the best in 2018.
The paradigm of requiring a virtuoso talent on the edge to be a great defense no longer holds in the modern NFL. Cornerbacks may have inched past defensive ends and outside linebackers on the scale of importance thanks to the proliferation of spread schemes and quick passes. Interior push to disrupt the run game and get into the passing lanes of those catch-and-fire passes becomes paramount and the Packers have arguably the best interior pass rush in football.
Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels don’t need Pettine’s exotic blitz looks to create havoc. Clark is just as likely to blow up a double team and get to the quarterback on a three-man rush as he is to whip a guard cold and get into the backfield on a run play. Mugging the A-gap with a pair of potential blitzers opens up lanes for those interior rushers, but can also get linebackers and safeties free.
Clark has more sacks than Cameron Wake and Ndamukong Suh. Blake Martinez has more than Justin Houston and Brandon Graham. Kyler Fackrell has just a half sack fewer than Jadeveon Clowney and Melvin Ingram. Pure sack totals aren’t the whole story, but they’re telling.
If a team is blitzing and getting home, the fact they may have left themselves vulnerable with man coverage behind them doesn’t matter. Green Bay fans have too many flashbacks to Dom Capers bring seven or eight guys, not getting home, and watching the good quarterbacks pick this Packers defense apart. That’s just not happening this season. Not only are the blitzes getting home and creating negative plays, when they aren’t taking down quarterbacks, they’re forcing off-target throws or poor reads.
Dean Lowry got home on a three-man rush against the Rams simply because LA didn’t know who was coming or when, so Lowry beat his guy and got home. Even just the threat of the blitz offers immeasurable value.
Would a shiny new pass rusher like Florida Gator Jachai Polite or Houston’s Clowney (a free agent this offseason) make this defense better? Of course. But it’s already really good and the pass rush is arguably the best in the NFL. How they get it doesn’t matter. It’s working. Really well and they’re not really sacrificing anything except the run game (and who cares?). After years of wandering in the Dom Capers National Forest, there’s no time to refuse rescue at the hands of the Pettine blitz package.