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Packers’ strong pass rush should be able to sustain success in 2020

Packers coach Mike Smith was right emphasizing pressures. After a highly productive 2019, is the pass rush breakout sustainable?

Green Bay Packers v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

In a recent presser, Green Bay Packers outside linebackers coach Mike Smith emphasized the importance of evaluating pass rushers not through sacks, but through pressure and disruption. This has long been a tenet of the more stats-inclined community. Sacks are quite reliant on who is playing quarterback. They can be random. Someone can get a sack because another player pressured a quarterback into them. They also make up a very small number of total pass rush reps.

In order to better capture how good a player is at disrupting the quarterback, pressures have become all the rage. Unfortunately, trying to get good pressures data can be hard. A pressure can be subjective. Even with that issue, it’s still a far better judge of effectiveness than sacks, as you would expect that within the high number of total pass rushes for the entire league, those subjectivities would even themselves out.

In 2019, the Packers’ EDGE players were incredibly productive from a raw numbers perspective. Za’Darius Smith had 13.5 sacks and Preston Smith had 12. Despite playing much of the season on a bum ankle, Kenny Clark was also incredibly productive on the inside as he added six sacks of his own. This three-headed pass rushing monster was needed, as outside of the big three, very little production was found from the rest of the rotation.

The question I wanted to answer was this: Could this group reasonably be expected to match last year’s breakout performances, or would we be in store for some serious regression? To do this, I pulled pass rushing data from Sports Info Solutions’ database. Filtering out players who didn’t play enough pass rushing snaps, I found that the average number of pressures-per-sack in the SIS database is 6.005, so six. From here I was able to make a pretty simple expected-sack equation, just taking total pressures and dividing them by 6.005. Note, this is not like expected-goal models in soccer, nor does it incorporate tracking data — it is meant to be a more simple mode of analysis.

How does the Packers star Smith look? Very very good.

Smith barely outperformed his pressures in 2019. His xSacks of 13.15 is essentially even with his actual sack total of 13.5. ZDS was a constant menace in the backfield, ranking fourth in pressure-rate. Nothing about Za’Darius’ 2019 was a fluke. He was an absolute terror.

Opposite Za’Darius is the lesser-heralded Smith, Preston. Preston backed up his new contract with a dozen sacks, including a few that were vital to secure victories. Does Preston’s production look sustainable?

Not exactly. Smith was still quite disruptive last season, but not quite 12-sack disruptive. His xSacks for 2019 was 9, compared to his actual sack total of 12. One thing to note is the vast difference in the number of rushes for ZDS and Preston. Za’Darius had 112 more pass rush snaps than Preston did. Preston was asked to drop into coverage quite a bit more, which explains some of that lower number. Preston’s pressure-rate ranked 20th in the NFL last year, which is plenty good enough for your EDGE2.

The Packers got a significant boost from their interior in newly #Paid Kenny Clark. Does the new man deserve all the money he got?

At first glance, you would think no. He did slightly underperform his xSacks last year, but only very mildly. But you can’t compare the Smiths to Clark. They play different positions. Clark ranked 6th among defensive tackles in total pressures last year, and is only just entering his prime years. It is also important to remember that he spent much of last season playing on a bad ankle. It should surprise no one if Kenny Clark becomes the most disruptive interior player, aside from Aaron Donald, in the NFL.

How did the rest of the qualifying Packers stack up? First round pick Rashan Gary wasn’t just unlucky, he was overall quite disappointing. His pressure-rate was below league average, albeit only slightly. It was known that Gary was always going to be a project, so hopefully we see a jump in year 2.

Dean Lowry’s 2019 season was a general disappointment after getting an extension. He was quite unlucky on pressures, but his production still lacked. He only produced 14 pressures in almost 300 pass rush snaps. His 4.8% pressure rate ranked 172nd out of 201 qualifying players. This cannot happen for someone as athletic as Lowry. He will need a major bounce-back season to even have a chance of avoiding the cap casualty treatment come January.

A fun note that is no longer related to the Packers is Kyler Fackrell. After a 2018 season that saw him post an insane 10.5 sacks, his sack total plummeted in 2019 to just one. Obviously some of that was playing time, but Fackrell’s sacks in 2018 were always a mirage. Despite leading all linebackers in sack percentage in 2018, his pressure rate ranked below even Nick Perry at just 9.4%. Fackrell’s xSacks number for 2018 was 3.5. He outperformed that by a completely unsustainable SEVEN sacks.

In 2019, Fackrell actually posted a much stronger pressure-rate of 14.7%, ranking two spots above Preston Smith, and underpeformed his xSacks by 3.66 sacks. Statistical regression is fun!

If Rashan Gary can be a better version of himself in 2020, I see every reason to think Green Bay’s pass rush performance is sustainable. Kenny Clark should be better as he enters his prime and hopefully avoids nagging ankle injuries. It’s almost impossible for the second defensive lineman position to be worse in 2020, and the Smiths were legitimately awesome in 2019. Opposing offensive lines shouldn’t be all that excited to take on the Packers pass rush this year.