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What the hell’s going on out there? A look inside the Packers’ declining pass defense

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Aaron Rodgers exclaimed “We have a defense” after a Week 1 win over the Bears. But over the last six weeks, that defense has been in decline. What happened?

Green Bay Packers v Los Angeles Chargers
Preston and Za’Darius Smith keep producing but the defense isn’t playing well.
Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

The easy way to explain the lagging defensive performance for the Green Bay Packers starts with quick passes from opposing quarterbacks. The image of Derek Carr slicing and dicing a helpless Green Bay secondary is fresh in our minds. If teams get the ball out quickly, the Smith Brothers don’t have a chance to wreak havoc or force quarterbacks to make throws before their ready, the kinds of passes that lead in incompletions, tips, and interceptions.

With apologies to Occam and his razor, this simple explanation doesn’t cut it, and not because it’s oversimplified, but because it’s wrong. It’s not that teams are throwing early more often — they’re not. When they are throwing it quickly though, they’re having more success, a foundational problem to be addressed in a moment.

No, the biggest problem, and one that helps explain why the Packers lead the league in plays over 40 yards, stems from what happens when quarterbacks hold the ball. Green Bay’s defensive efficiency in October and November nosedived after an impressive start.

By league standards, holding the ball should be a problem for quarterbacks. Most players, even Aaron Rodgers much of his career, produce most efficiently with the ball coming out quickly. We would expect good defenses to be more effective defending passes when a quarterback holds the ball and there’s something intuitive about it. When the quarterback gets to the top of his drop, he wants to fire. If he has to hold it, the intended receiver is either covered, or there’s pressure. Either way, that’s a reflection of good defense.

Quarterbacks tend to be less efficient holding the ball precisely because doing so tends to reflect what is already a good defensive play.

To illustrate the issue here are the troubling numbers laid out using passer rating differential. It’s measuring how much better an opponent is when getting the ball out quickly.

Passer rating differential under 2.5 seconds vs. over 2.5 seconds

Week 1: 41.3
Week 2: 23.8
Week 3: 37.7
Week 4: 12.4
Week 5: 6.7
Week 6: -23.6
Week 7: 19
Week 8: -22.9
Week 9: -14.5

The trend line couldn’t be clearer: with the exception of the Raiders game, the Packers defense has been steadily declining in efficiency as quarterbacks are holding the ball. When the defense was firing on all cylinders, waiting was death for offenses. Lately? It’s meant big plays. Not surprisingly, that coincides with the steady decline in defensive numbers.

Holding the ball and still finding success suggests a pair of potential problems: a lack of pressure and/or a problem in coverage.

Green Bay is still pressuring opponents at an elite rate, but since Week 3, they have just 10 sacks in six games, which is 23rd in the league over that time. This could just be noise, or it could be indicative of a problem with an inconsistent pass rush. Considering how steady the pressure has been all season, more likely the last few weeks have seen the Packers get a little unlucky converting pressures into sacks. Even Philip Rivers performed a Houdini act to slip away from a sack and turn it into a big play.

Derek Carr got after the Packers with quick passes before the pass rush could get home, but most teams have taken the opposite tact over the last month and a half. In fact, Carr and Rivers threw the ball in under 2.5 seconds at among the lowest rate of the season for opposing passers. Only Kirk Cousins and Dak Prescott threw it quickly less often than they did. Carr happened to have success with it, to the point his success on early downs belies his success holding the ball relative to the other quarterbacks on the schedule.

His passer rating when holding the ball would be fourth on the season against the Packers behind Carson Wentz and the last two quarterbacks the Packers have faced. His performance actually supports the troubling trend line in quarterbacks having success holding the ball.

Carr’s success with quick throws also embody a secondary trend that must be noted. It’s not just the Packers are less effective defending passes when the quarterback holds it, they having less success overall as well. In the first three weeks, the Packers kept opposing quarterbacks under 80 in passer rating when getting the ball out quickly. Since then, only Matthew Stafford has fallen below 80 and the Packers haven’t kept the other four quarterbacks under 90.

That leaves us with an obvious problem to which we can point: coverage. Darnell Savage’s return to the field wasn’t enough the last two weeks to reverse this troubling trend. Preston and Za’Darius Smith keep putting up sack numbers. The real difference is the turnovers, particularly interceptions. After picking off seven passes in the first five games, the Packers have just one over the last four.

Jaire Alexander started the season on an absolute tear, but offenses are finding ways to use his aggression against him. Savage’s return didn’t buoy the defense in large part because Adrian Amos must play more out of position as a nickel linebacker/safety hybrid and Blake Martinez’s limitations in coverage show up more often when quarterbacks can use the middle of the field, knowing he can’t run with their receivers.

Perhaps getting healthy will bolster the Packers, and a healthier dose of blitzes could be in order. Green Bay has one of the best four-man rushes in football, but Pettine thrives with his array of designer blitzes. He may have had too much respect for someone like Rivers, who Pettine said has seen everything and therefore would be difficult to confuse. That doesn’t team sitting back every play in the same look and never trying to force the issue.

One of the main criticisms of Dom Capers, often from his own players, was a passive plan. Pettine is, by nature, an aggressive, blitzing coach who wants to disguise and confuse and attack. That’s not the version of the defense we’ve seen, perhaps because he wants to fix the issues with big plays. Blitzing creates opportunities for chunk plays if you don’t get home. Coaches often counter with more vanilla schemes, hoping to execute them more effectively and mitigate big plays. After all, the Packers boast one of the most impressive four-man rushes in the league this season. Why force the issue?

Unfortunately for Green Bay, this paradox also haunts them with personnel. Pettine sacrifices run game success with smaller personnel to defend the pass, then can’t get consistent play from his secondary to ... yanno, defend the pass. If they’re going to play more passively with rushing four and dropping seven, then giving up big plays must end. Otherwise, the team might as well return to a more blitz-heavy team and live with the splash plays they were giving up anyway.