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Kevin Greene or Winston Moss? A decade of Packers pass rush stats might surprise you

Green Bay’s defense saw some highs and lows under both outside linebacker coaches, but each tenure offered the Packers some takeaways for the next decade.

Green Bay Packers v St Louis Rams

While watching the Green Bay Packers battle the New York Jets last Sunday in a game that ultimately meant little to both non-playoff contending teams, the glimpse of a familiar face was caught on the MetLife Stadium sidelines between plays: former Green Bay outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene.

After a three-year hiatus from the NFL, Greene returned to the league in a similar role coaching the outside ‘backers for the Jets in 2017 and remains on a defensive staff that, like Green Bay’s, may be on its way out in less than a week. In the midst of what has been a disappointing season from the Packers’ outside linebacking crew in generating pressure, seeing Greene on the sidelines evoked a sense of “what-if.” What if Greene had not surprisingly left Green Bay following the 2013 season, giving way to Winston Moss? Would the Packers’ defense be in a better shape now had there been continuity for the OLB unit, perhaps the most vital position in the 3-4 system?

With the stability of Dom Capers as Defensive Coordinator spanning a wide range of years before and after Greene’s departure, that answer may not be as clear-cut as initially thought. Here are comparisons based on two important stats: sacks and quarterback hits.

Kevin Greene (2009-2013)

Greene oversaw a Packer linebacker corps that included a young Clay Matthews, who reached four Pro Bowls in a five-year stretch, but also a large number of undrafted free agents. Green Bay won a Super Bowl during the 2010 season, boasted a 15-1 record in 2011, and only tallied less than 10 wins once in that span. While some of those feats, as well as a top offense, could mask some of the Packers’ deficiencies on defense, Green Bay’s outside linebackers were not as dangerous during Greene’s tenure as one might think.

The Packers, more or less, had a classic “bend-but-don’t-break” defense during Greene’s years in Green Bay, but they really lacked a dynamic pass rusher opposite Matthews. Mike Neal’s five sacks in 2013 were the most for an edge rusher in that timeframe, with Frank Zombo, Dezman Moses, and Brad Jones a close second at four sacks apiece. In fact, a monumental reason why the Super Bowl champion Packers were able to become what they were in 2010 was due to the pass rush from other positions in Capers’ scheme. Cullen Jenkins brought seven sacks from the five-technique, while B.J. Raji added 6.5 sacks from the nose and Zombo notched his four as a rotational player on the other end from Matthews, who tallied 13.5. As seen below from Pro Football Reference, the Packers recorded Greene-era highs of 89 quarterback hits and 47 sacks during the 2010 season despite just 37 hits and 21.5 sacks from the outside linebackers.

OLB Pass Rush Under Kevin Greene

Year Team QB Hits Team Sacks OLB QB Hits OLB Sacks Clay Matthews Sacks
Year Team QB Hits Team Sacks OLB QB Hits OLB Sacks Clay Matthews Sacks
2013 63 44 28 21 7.5
2012 86 47 52 26.5 13
2011 70 29 42 11 6
2010 89 47 37 21.5 13.5
2009 88 37 47 18.5 10

But outside the 2012 season, the Packers really struggled to get to the quarterback during Greene’s stint. The 2011 season was abysmal in that the entire defense registered only 29 total sacks and 70 total hits, with just 11 sacks and 42 hits coming from the outside linebackers.

Really astounding was Greene’s last season in 2013 when the Packer defense was relatively all-or-nothing when rushing the passer. As a team, the Packers recorded 44 sacks among their 63 quarterback hits, with the outside linebackers producing 21 sacks on just 28 hits! As ESPN notes, “players who have a disproportionately high or low percentage of sacks per knockdown are likely to see their sack total rise or fall accordingly the following year.” That indeed was the case and will be mentioned below, but although Aaron Rodgers’ injury that season severely impacted time of possession, the Packers still struggled greatly to generate consistent pass rush outside of their sacks.

Winston Moss (2014-2018)

Although Rodgers was injured in parts of Moss’ tenure in Green Bay as well, the Packers’ outside linebackers became a much larger focal point of the pass rush.

Moss was instantly aided by the addition of Julius Peppers in the 2014 offseason, finally giving the Packers a bookend rusher to help Matthews. Peppers gave the Packers 24.5 sacks over three seasons and was a catalyst for helping the Packers increase their quarterback hits and sacks overall. Excluding a shortened 2018 season, Green Bay never saw the OLBs record fewer than 53 quarterback hits under Moss’ leadership, a single-year total higher than any year under Greene. Four full seasons under Moss saw the Packers average 26.3 sacks and 58.3 hits from the outside linebackers compared to just 19.7 sacks and 41.1 hits under five seasons of Greene.

OLB Pass Rush Under Winston Moss

Year Team QB Hits Team Sacks OLB QB Hits OLB Sacks Clay Matthews Sacks
Year Team QB Hits Team Sacks OLB QB Hits OLB Sacks Clay Matthews Sacks
2018 71 43 34 17 3.5
2017 99 37 51 20 7.5
2016 88 40 53 27.5 5
2015 109 43 71 30.5 6.5
2014 103 41 58 27 11

While the acquisition of Peppers and emergence of Nick Perry certainly helped the Packers over the past five years, the pass rush improvement from the unit after the coaching change is staggering. Even in what was considered a “down” season in 2017, the Packers’ outside linebackers were still on par with any unit of Greene’s tutelage.

And while the negative outlier of the 2018 season certainly has caused a stir among the Packer faithful, the Packers, by the numbers, have actually created more pass rush in the latter half of the decade from their OLBs than the former. This year, their production has merely reverted back to many seasons under Greene - seasons that many people on the surface may have considered the Packers’ glory days of the past decade.

Final Thoughts

Neither Greene nor Moss were given many high-level prospects

Both coordinators had the luxury of gaining high-impact players immediately. Greene with Matthews and Moss with Peppers. But outside of that, the talent level was marginal. Green Bay did draft two players with a premium draft pick to help Greene - Jones and Perry - but both provided inconsistent production or relatively none. Moss, on the other hand, was never given a high draft pick unless you count Fackrell in the third round.

It is a perplexing concept, as the Packers have gone to the first-round cornerback well so many times over the past decade to alleviate defensive concerns, yet have neglected adding pass rushers. Unlike the New York Giants of the early 2010s or last year’s Philadelphia Eagles, the Packers were rather complacent with the pass rush group they had. A positive pass rushing season at outside linebacker, especially in Moss’ time, led to almost no new influx of talent at the position. That approach finally started to catch up to the Packers in 2017 when Peppers left as a free agent and in 2018 when they added little outside depth. This year’s crop of edge rushing talent in the draft could give the Packers a chance to right some of those wrongs.

The impact of a proven free agent can lead to quick changes

Green Bay’s outside linebacker pass rush improved both immediately and dramatically when it welcomed Julius Peppers in 2014. Of course, the Packers did not strike the same kind of gold when they signed an aging Ahmad Brooks in 2017. But for a team like the 2018 Packers, a proven commodity could help enact fast change. In free agency, younger players such as Jadeveon Clowney, Demarcus Lawrence, and Dee Ford could hit the open market in 2019. It has not been Packer-like to sign marquee free agents like these since the splashes of 2006, but the second year of Brian Gutekunst as General Manager could have a surprise in store.

Moss might have had more talent to work with than Greene, but he ultimately cultivated the most position-specific results.

Moss’ abrasive personality toward the end of his run in Green Bay was a distraction, but his units were either more or just as productive as any Packers outside linebacking crew of the past decade. I give Greene plenty of credit for trying to develop former undrafted free agents into contributors and former defensive ends like Aaron Kampman into edge-rushing linebackers. That Kampman recorded 16 quarterback hits in 2009 after standing up for the first time actually is quite remarkable. But in the end, Moss helped Perry and Peppers transition from ends to linebackers as well and made the most of the talent he was given, even if many Packer fans like myself did not realize or appreciate it.