Defenses function better and get better results when they pressure the quarterback. This should come as no surprise to anyone who pays an ounce of attention to football. When quarterbacks are pressured, they make poorer decisions and throws than when they have time to throw, and that leads to better results for the defense.
However, in 2016, no defense was more heavily reliant on the success of their pass rush than the Green Bay Packers. On Monday, Football Outsiders broke down NFL teams’ overall defensive success based on plays on which they pressured the quarterback. Using their DVOA metric to analyze the unit’s performance, the Packers had the greatest disparity of any NFL team between their DVOA with pressure versus without pressure.
When the Packers pressured the quarterback, they were the fifth-best defense in the NFL. That corresponds to a DVOA rating of -80.3% (note that negative numbers favor the defense). the four teams that rated better with pressure were as follows: Cardinals (-92.1%), Buccaneers (-89.2%), Chiefs (-89.0%), and Giants (-80.8%).
However, the Packers fell apart when they could not get near opposing QBs, finishing just 28th in the NFL (5th-worst) when failing to get pressure at +48.0%. By contrast, the only worse teams last season were the Saints (+49.8%), Jets (+51.4%), Lions (+54.9%), and Browns (+57.1%).
Ultimately, the Packers’ differential between the two was the greatest of any defense in the NFL. This difference is likely due in large part to the team’s struggles in the secondary; the injuries and inexperience of the cornerbacks made that unit struggle when they didn’t get assistance from the front seven.
One further criticism that this writer has heard of the 2016 Packers is a bit unfounded, and that is the frequency at which they were able to get pressure. They were hardly an elite unit, but were nowhere near the bottom of the league either, as they finished almost exactly at the league average in pressure rate. The Packers pressured the quarterback on 27.0% of passing snaps, almost exactly the league average rate of 27.1%, and Green Bay ranked 16th in that stat. Furthermore, the rate of pressure does not vary all that widely across the NFL; the top-ranked Denver Broncos had a rate of 32.2%.
This breakdown helps to illuminate the struggles that the Packers underwent in 2016 and how to fix them moving forward. In 2017, the Packers can expect an improvement in their DVOA performance without pressure, so long as they see the secondary hold up with better health throughout the season. In addition, an increase in the pressure rate would drastically help the defense’s overall performance, as it would shift more plays from the positive side of the ledger to the negative.
As one might expect from a Dom Capers defense, the unit excels when getting to the QB; now the focus must be on getting there more frequently and putting the secondary in a position to succeed even when pressure does not get to the quarterback.