On its face, it seems counter-intuitive: bring in pass rushers to help on first down. We usually think of this as a third-down solution. Create more pressure, keep quarterbacks from completing passes and extending drives. And to be sure, the Green Bay Packers struggled on third down last season, finishing among the worst in the league in third down success rate when teams took to the air.
But the problems started much earlier on downs.
“I think we just need to have a better win rate on early downs,” Pettine said this week. “We need to get teams behind the sticks more because that really plays into what we do.”
Packers opponents were successful throwing the ball on first down 58% of the time according to Sharp Football, the worst defensive number in the league. That was just ahead of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who were by far the worst defense in the NFL last year. This is where adding the Acme Sackers and Rashan Gary come in.
Last season, Pettine tended to play bigger on early downs, going to his cadre of sub-package personnel groupings on second and third down. The Packers, as a result, had a solid first-down run defense, finishing 12th in success rate there. Set up Pettine to put together his exotic looks and he can kill teams on blitzes and coverage disguises. But while Green Bay’s pass rush finished with solid numbers overall last year, a significant portion of that came off blitz looks. With the Packers in bigger personnel, blitzing on first down would leave them more susceptible to coverage issues in the back end with guys like Antonio Morrisson or Blake Martinez having to cover in space.
Put Za’Darius and Preston Smith on the field in those situations though and the run defense can thrive with those big bodies, while they also provide the pass rush necessary to prevent teams from throwing it all over the yard on the Packers on first down.
Adding pass rush while not giving up any beef upfront should mitigate some of the issues we saw last season, but it won’t be enough on its own. As Pettine rightly points out, one of the big struggles for the Packers last year was a specific kind of throwing on first down. Play-action sucks up linebackers and safeties to create openings behind them.
Oren Burks’ ascension into the every-down rotation along with the additions Brian Gutekunst made at safety should add to the salve on this first-down wound. Burks isn’t a great run defender, but showed flashes of coverage ability in the preseason, his specialty in college as well. Darnell Savage has the speed to recover from a mistake, as well as the explosiveness to erase ones made in front of him. And Adrian Amos is one of the most assignment-sure safeties in football.
To be sure, having these guys on the field on any down should improve the defense overall. This group, though, has specific qualities that could uniquely position them to improve on early downs. Burks brings a linebacker body with safety speed, keeping the size in the front seven up while not giving up the athleticism to cover. Za’Darius and Preston Smith are each excellent run defenders to go along with their pass rush prowess and if Rashan Gary is on the field, he might just be the best run defender of anyone. But all three can still get after the quarterback as well.
Add in the improved safety group and suddenly this is a defense ideally suited to stop first-down throws, including and especially off play-action. If the cornerback group can stay healthy, they have the talent to handle their end of the equation as well. And for the first time in a long time, the Packers have enough talent around the cornerback room to pick up the slack if they do suffer injuries.
Pettine won’t be able to go to exotic looks to fix this major first-down issue. He has to hope Brian Gutekunst did the work he couldn’t. As we stand here in June, it looks like that’s exactly what happened.