The Green Bay Packers are starting to come together defensively, and they’ll have a chance at a real breakout performance this Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Defensive coordinator Joe Barry was under some pressure after his defense struggled to generate any pressure on opposing quarterbacks in the team’s first two games. Although the pressure started to come via blitzes and extra pass rushers in the second half of their game against the Detroit Lions, it finally started to show up consistently last week in a primetime matchup.
The San Francisco 49ers had a hard time playing from behind, with Barry and his defense doing a good job of attacking Jimmy Garoppolo and getting him to throw while under pressure. According to Pro Football Focus, Garoppolo was under pressure on 36.4 percent of his dropbacks, posting just a 35.4 passer rating while being sacked four times. He also turned the ball over twice while under duress, throwing an interception to Jaire Alexander and fumbling the ball in an attempt to throw it away.
Pressure is such an important component to a successful defense. Sacks are great, but pressure can also result in bad decisions from the quarterback, leading to incompletions and turnovers.
Getting pressure on Ben Roethlisberger will be a big key to victory for the Packers in Week 4. Fortunately for Barry and company, getting in Big Ben’s face shouldn’t be too difficult.
At 39 years old, Roethlisberger looks like a player who should have already retired. That may sound a bit harsh when talking about a future Hall of Fame quarterback, but the tape has shown a quarterback who struggles to move in the pocket, has terrible mechanics, and simply isn’t making good decisions with the ball.
Just watch some of the plays from Roethlisberger on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals provided by The Ringer’s Steven Ruiz.
Guys like this could never play in today’s league pic.twitter.com/kuFu2PU520— Steven Ruiz (@theStevenRuiz) September 27, 2021
Big Ben has been especially dreadful this season when under pressure. On 33 dropbacks under duress, he’s averaging just 5.5 yards per pass attempt with three interceptions and a passer rating of 20.1.
A lot of Roethlisberger’s struggles are due to his age and failing physical ability, but the Steelers offensive line isn’t doing him any favors, either. An offensive line that once had Pro Bowlers like Maurkice Pouncey and Alejandro Villanueva now features players like Kevin Dotson and rookie Kendrick Green.
To make matters worse for the Steelers, there’s a good chance that they’ll be without starting left tackle Chukwuma Okorafor on Sunday. The Pittsburgh lineman has not practiced this week and is still in concussion protocol, meaning that backup tackle Dan Moore Jr. will likely be out there yet again. For the Packers, going against Moore Jr. at left tackle will be a welcome change after facing Terron Armstead, Penei Sewell, and Trent Williams the first three weeks.
This will be a big week for a handful of defensive players to step up for the Packers, especially with Z’Darius Smith still on injured reserve. Perhaps no pass rusher has more to prove than Rashan Gary. Gary became a key pass rusher down the stretch for the Packers last season. He’s unfortunately got off to a slow start this year, only racking up half a sack through the first three games.
A big reason for that has been Gary’s struggles overshooting the quarterback and getting behind him, typically when rushing with power. When he doesn’t overshoot the pocket, Gary also struggles giving up outside containment, focusing so much on a bull rush that the quarterback is able to escape by getting outside of him.
The good news is that it’s looking like Gary is understanding those issues as well. He was able to get to the quarterback last Sunday by retracing instead of continuing to attack downfield.
Something @BenFennell_NFL has been stressing with Gary.— Ross Uglem (@RossUglem) September 27, 2021
Was it cool the one time against Detroit to just throw the RT into Goff? Of course, it was.
Quit blowing by. Get to the level of the QB and retrace. Use your tremendous athleticism. pic.twitter.com/SROk9wvDwk
Fellow edge rusher Preston Smith will be looking for some opportunities to tee off as well. He has done a tremendous job setting the edge all season, but he had a much bigger impact as a push rusher this past week against the 49ers, getting his first sack of 2021 and generating a handful of pressures.
Easily Smith’s most impressive rep of the game came against Trent Williams, arguably the best left tackle in football right now. Watch how he sets up Williams inside before cutting back outside and getting a hit on Garoppolo.
The grounding no-call, whatever it's been discussed. Look at this rep from Preston Smith against Trent Williams who is the best healthy LT in football right now.— Peter Bukowski (@Peter_Bukowski) September 29, 2021
Trent just doesn't get beat like this. (But the refs reward the QB for a terrible play). pic.twitter.com/EFN5JANbsK
Kenny Clark will be looking to string together yet another solid performance after making plays in back-to-back weeks. Despite the depth concerns on the defensive line, Clark has stepped up in a big way for the defense. I discussed Clark’s impact earlier this week and how his presence was felt in the win over San Francisco.
Fans have criticized Clark in the past for his inconsistency, especially considering he’s in the middle of a four-year, $70 million contract extension. Another big performance on Sunday could quiet the haters, at least for a little bit.
Gary, Smith, and Clark will be the most important players in terms of getting to Roethlisberger, but Oren Burks could be someone who also has an impact as a pass rusher. Barry has only used him in limited reps as a blitzer, but he has already produced a few pressures against the Lions and 49ers.
here's Oren Burks coming on the blitz, getting held a little, and still getting half a sack on Jimmy G pic.twitter.com/rMNEjDVlzY— Christian D'Andrea needs help to buy Ale Asylum (@TrainIsland) September 27, 2021
Given Roethlisberger’s limited athleticism and Pittsburgh’s depleted offensive line, there is real opportunity for the Packers defense to generate pressure on Sunday. If Barry is willing to bring pressure with extra rushers and the players mentioned above can step up, then Sunday could be a coming-out party for the Packers defense.