The combination of Mike Pettine, Jaire Alexander, and Josh Jackson will be all the infusion of talent the Green Bay Packers pass rush needs in 2018.
No, Pettine isn’t going to go line up at outside linebacker, an option some fans might have preferred to Kyler Fackrell last season. And no, Alexander and Jackson aren’t going to blitz off the edge in some new cat blitz-heavy attack.
Green Bay’s defense in 2017, which didn’t generate a single sack in the red zone, still finished ninth in adjusted sack rate. The problem wasn’t getting to opposing quarterbacks, it was all the times when this defense couldn’t get home. Cornerbacks played too soft and failed to re-route their men at the line of scrimmage. Quarterbacks were allowed to hit the top of their drops and know exactly where their receiving options would be.
No matter how good the rush is, when receivers are given a free release, NFL quarterbacks are good enough to get them the ball, particularly with the league’s emphasis on getting the ball out quickly.
In fact, some of the league’s best quarterbacks, including Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, were among the most conservative quarterbacks in football last season in terms of air yards. Teams just aren’t chucking the ball down the field as often, which mitigates the impact a pass rush can have. When the ball comes out quickly, even a good rusher or a well-timed blitz can’t get home.
Pettine wants to disguise looks and bring blitzes that confuse opposing quarterbacks and that should help, particularly with situational defense. If the quarterback knows what is coming and the corners don’t disrupt the timing of the play, the defense has no chance.
But perhaps the biggest factor is wanting to play more man coverage, and in particular more press man. Brian Gutekunst got him two new toys to play with and although Josh Jackson isn’t an experience press corner, he has the body and physical tools to do it. Alexander, despite being undersized, has long arms and did press at Louisville.
To illustrate how important this change can be for the pass rush, take a look at this play from the game against the New Orleans Saints that results in a big play.
This is man coverage from the Packers and while Davon House and Damarious Randall are in press, Kevin King is playing off, hoping to funnel Michael Thomas inside. The problem is that’s exactly where Thomas wants to go.
There are a host of issues here, including how passively HaHa Clinton-Dix attacks—or rather doesn’t attack—the ball in the air or the pass catcher, but let’s start with the easy thing.
This is just too soft. There’s created space for Randall to cover in the slot, especially with as common as rub routes are in the NFL, but King doesn’t have to be this deep to be in good position to allow space. There’s no reason to give a 10-yard cushion in this situation.
Watch this play from the end zone view now and see just how close Mike Daniels was to taking down Brees. How much faster could Daniels have been in the quarterback’s lap? This isn’t a pass rush problem, it’s a coverage problem.
If King is able to disrupt the timing of this play for even just half a second, Daniels has a sack. As it is, Brees has to hold the ball a little longer than he wants to in order to let this play develop. If teams are going to try and get these slow-developing plays off, Green Bay can give its pass rush every opportunity to create pressure. Daniels still gets a good rush here and Brees has to make a great play, which he does. Tip your hat to him and to the Saints, but this could have been avoided.
The Packers proved that in this same game.
Watch the difference here in aggressive, asserting cornerback play and how it can disrupt the timing of an offense.
The Saints are trying to get Alvin Kamara deep on Josh Jones with a little bit of a rub route, but Davon House aggressively challenging Michael Thomas, pushing him off his spot, ruins the continuity of the play.
A mass of bodies ensues, Josh Jones gets (a probably illegal) shot on Kamara and this play is dead to rights by the time Brees can get to his underneath receiver. And it doesn’t matter that he’s open because House made sure the combination concept failed. Brees now has to come back underneath, which takes time, and that gives Nick Perry the extra split second he needs to get free and get the sack.
Credit Perry for winning his battle, but if House plays soft here and allows Thomas a free release, chances are even if Jones doesn’t get bumped off his spot, Brees will have an angle to find Kamara. At worst, Perry creates pressure, but as we saw from the previous play, pressure often isn’t enough for these high level quarterbacks.
Gutekunst gave Pettine players who can press at the line. Alexander plays with speed and explosiveness so he’s unafraid of getting beat over the top. And Jackson has the size, length, and instincts to make plays.
If this defense is going to play man coverage and get their hands on opposing receivers, the pass rush will be better by default. Tramon Williams was part of a team in Green Bay that proved that. Kevin King, at his size, should be perfect to disrupt receivers at the line. Add in Jackson and Alexander to House, who is also ideally suited to press, and suddenly the Packers have a secondary tailor-made for Pettine’s scheme.
Green Bay made this pass rush better with a new scheme and an influx of talent in the secondary. The old adage in the NFL is a secondary’s best friend is a good pass rush, and that can be true. But in the modern league, the secondary has to do their teammates in the trenches some favors as well and that means the coaching staff taking away the easy, underneath timing throws.
Despite the return of some familiar faces, almost everything else about this defense will look different in 2018.