One of my big criticisms of Dom Capers’ defenses is that by relying on gimmicks and complicated blitz schemes to generate sacks, the defense gave up the ability to generate consistent pressure. This is a problem because when quarterbacks have as much time as they want, even bad ones will hit big plays against you with regularity, and pick you apart.
The Packers recorded 37 sacks in 2017, tied with the Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals for 17th in the league, and just one fewer than the Superbowl champion Eagles. That was good for an adjusted sack rate of 7.3%, ninth in the league. That’s not a bad raw total considering how often the team trailed when Brett Hundley took over the offense, but those sacks did not come with regular and consistent pressure on the quarterback.
When a team like the Vikings is rushing the passer, they don’t always get home, but they are more likely to force a quarterback to make a throw on their terms. A good “pressure” pass rush will collapse the pocket. Too often, the Packer pass rush is stymied completely. This is partially the result of lack of talent, and partially the result of blitzes not getting home. If a blitzing corner, safety, or lighter linebacker is picked up properly and loses the element of surprise and is forced to engage, he’s simply not going to push a lineman or tight end anywhere.
Football Outsiders recently ran a series of articles breaking down pass rushing and pressure across the NFL in the 2017 season, and their findings confirm much of what we suspected about Capers.
The Packers rushed four on 61.4% of plays, which ranked 18th in terms of frequency. The four-man Packer pass rush generated pressure just 28.4% of the time, which ranked 24th in the NFL. Given the struggles they faced in rushing four it’s not surprising that the Packers would blitz frequently, and they did, bringing five or more on 33.2% of plays. That made them the 7th most frequent blitzers in football, but those blitzes also rarely got home, resulting in pressure on just 39.5% of plays. Now, 39.5% is better than 28.4%, but it still ranks just 24th among all teams when bringing five or more rushers. Getting any pressure at all was crucial to their success on defense, but when blitzes don’t get home they leave a defense extremely vulnerable, and given the quality of the Packer secondary, they were already plenty vulnerable.
Perhaps the biggest indictment of Capers and the talent on defense is the split between the team’s effectiveness with and without pressure. Overall, the Packers pressured opposing QBs on 29.7% of plays, and they were reasonably effective when doing so, ranking 13th in DVOA on those plays. However, when they failed to generate pressure, they were horrible, ranking dead last in DVOA, and they generated pressure more than only five other NFL teams. They also had the second-largest split between DVOA with and without pressure, meaning that they didn’t just get worse without pressure — they fell off of a cliff.
Every team in the NFL is better when they generate pressure, but no team went completely to pieces without it like Dom and company last season. That simply can’t happen, because even teams with great pass rushes are not going to generate pressure most of the time. Your scheme may depend on pressure, and the splash plays that come with it, but it can’t sacrifice so much in doing so that it can’t function on the most common plays in football.
Hopefully Mike Pettine can fix all of this with a new scheme and a fresh infusion of talent, and I’m cautiously optimistic that he will. There’s no reason a front led by Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark should not be getting interior pressure with regularity, and the outside guys should have an easier time because of it. The secondary should be much stronger as well, which may help the non-pressure numbers. It literally couldn’t get worse.