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Packers’ improvement on defense likely to come from secondary, not revamped pass rush

Despite massive upgrades in personnel at outside linebacker, the Packers defensive improvement still hinges on the development of the secondary.

Chicago Bears v Minnesota Vikings
Adrian Amos may not turn his with splashy play, but the stability he brings has significant implications for this defense.
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Investing tens of millions and a top-15 pick in the outside linebacker position signaled Brian Gutekunst’s willingness to prioritize a need position, but that doesn’t hold the keys for defensive improvement in Green Bay. Creating sacks last season wasn’t the problem for the Green Bay Packers under Mike Pettine, with his intricate, terrorizing pressure schemes. The depletion of the secondary cost his squad the chance to take the proverbial step forward and, even with those pass rush reinforcements, that holds true again in 2019. Gutekunst’s biggest opportunity to improve this defense came more from his secondary additions in free agency and the first round.

When the Packers gave up a late rally against the Vikings in Week 2 last season, two enormous factors stand out: Davon House coming in and getting torched coupled with Kentrell Brice getting lost on a handful of enormous downfield plays.

“We probably didn’t handle Kevin King’s injury very well,” then-head coach Mike McCarthy said after the game. “We just weren’t as detailed down the stretch.”

This was, in part, the story of the defensive season. King couldn’t stay on the field, Jaire Alexander missed some time, and Tramon Williams had to move positions to steady the defense after the Ha Ha Clinton-Dix trade. Josh Jackson and Tony Brown weren’t prepared to shoulder that large of a burden and the defense struggled as a result. It wasn’t the pass rush that let this team down.

Green Bay didn’t add at the cornerback position, but Williams becomes a de facto addition by heading back to the cornerback room. Adrian Amos offers the stability in the deep secondary that Ha Ha Clinton-Dix never could, while Darnell Savage will get the chance to provide the playmaking Ted Thompson never could replace after Nick Collins’ career-ending injury.

Despite all the complains about the lack of pass rush from the Packers, a group forced to heavily feature Reggie Gilbert and surging Kyler Fackrell finished 10th in adjusted sack rate, 9th in sacks overall, and 9th in pressure rate per Pro Football Focus. Pettine’s ability to scheme rushers free made up for the lack of individual pass rush talent.

Fackrell winning some of his individual battles doesn’t serve as a counter to this notion either, although he converted pressures to sacks at an entirely unsustainable rate. He did beat some offensive tackles to get his sacks. This wasn’t just Pettine scheming him free. On the other hand, indecision from offensive lineman wondering where pressure is coming from at all times manifests in subtle ways. It can make life easier for the Packers pass rushers even when they’re bringing traditional rushers from traditional spots.

Getting better on the edge with rushers who can create on their own helps Pettine dial up more exotic coverage looks should he choose to run them, while also focusing more on helping out the back end rather than having to create so much out of whole cloth with the pass rush.

The Patriots actively subvert their pass rush to prioritize coverage, a plan that has helped Bill Belichick win half a dozen Super Bowl titles and solidify himself as the greatest coach of the modern era.

“It’s all tied in to the coverage,” Belichick said back in 2015 of his defense. “If you have the receivers covered, it gives the pass rush more opportunity. If you don’t have the receivers covered, then even a good rush isn’t going to result in a quarterback getting tackled, probably. The interceptions are a result of pass rush, just like sacks are a result of coverage,”

Complementary football defines the Patriots dynasty. No one has played better complementary or situational football in the last two decades. With the Packers struggling on the back end, it creates a higher burden for Pettine to manufacture pressure. Manufacturing coverage is nearly impossible.

“Overall, you need good coverage to have a good pass rush, and a good pass rush to have good coverage,” Belichick says. “When those two have been in sync, we’ve been more productive. When they haven’t, we’ve given up some plays.”

Getting more pass rushers should make the coverage better in Green Bay, but the street runs both ways. Alexander and Jackson need a Year 2 jump, the latter in particular. Late in the season, the light appeared to go on for the second-round pick from Iowa, though he never showed the playmaking and ball skills we saw from him in the preseason. Perhaps that is coming.

King’s role starts with staying on the field. He showed early flashes last season of becoming a very good player and Alexander did more than just flash. The two of them together hint at something great, but each have injury histories and have to stay out of the training room. Jackson, for his part, came to the NFL raw as a man coverage player. This was always going to take time. One doesn’t simply forget how to play the ball or read a quarterback. There’s still potential to get a lot better and even if he just makes an incremental step forward, the top three takes shape.

Beyond that, Tramon Williams gets to slide back to his more natural position to play in the slot or the outside. He can start if Jackson comes along slowly or in injury situations. In 2019, he can be insurance at the position he’s been paid to play, not the one where injuries and underperformance forced him to play.

Much like the pass rush makes the secondary better, the enormous improvement at safety ought to bolster the coverage of the cornerbacks. Fewer blown coverages, missed tackles, and missed assignments should allow guys like Alexander and Jackson to resume their college roles as playmakers. Likewise, if Amos and Savage can rely on those corners to consistently do their job, the doors open to splash plays of their own.

Gutekunst found a way to buoy the talent levels of two critical need positions, ones that ultimately work in tandem to make the other better. Green Bay’s pass rush would have jumped if only from the upgrade in the secondary even if they had to trot out the underwhelming group from last year. Likewise, having to play Kyler Fackrell and Reggie Gilbert becomes easier with the talent infusion and hopeful improvement in the secondary.

The combination should amplify the positive impact of each individual move, but Pettine could have handled creating pass rush on his own. He couldn’t manufacture the consistency and playmaking he needed in the secondary. So, his GM went and got consistency and playmaking for him. To make sure those moves took hold, he also gave Pettine some new toys to make that pass rush even more monstrous. If the Packers’ mad scientist defensive coordinator could make last year’s group work getting to opposing quarterbacks, imagine what he can do with this re-tooled group.