Green Bay Packers' Vic So'oto celebrates his interception for a touchdown during the third quarter of the Green Bay Packers-Kansas City Chiefs pre-season game Sept. 1, 2011, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. / File/Gannett Wisconsin Media
The Green Bay Packers have their reasons for not giving Vic So’oto a chance to rush the passer yet this season.
The undrafted rookie from Brigham Young has serious limitations in coverage as an outside linebacker making the transition from college defensive end. He also lags on special teams, which is most young players’ door to getting on the field.
But you still have to wonder if a defense that needs the help shouldn’t give So’oto at least a handful of rushes, with no possibility of dropping into coverage, to see if he can juice their rush.
Dom Capers, the Packers’ defensive coordinator and co-inventor of their 3-4 scheme, talked Saturday of several factors behind So’oto not getting even a snap from scrimmage so far this season. At the top of the list is the rookie’s back injury sustained while lifting weights in Week 1, an injury that sidelined him the first two regular-season games and stunted his development after his strong finish in the preseason. It’s also clear the Packers have major reservations about So’oto’s coverage skills.
“The best thing I can say there is he’s still very young at the position, still very green learning the techniques, all those things,” Capers said. “You don’t want to experiment on the field. You guys hear me say this all the time, and I tell the team, if we’re going to call something on Sunday I want to see it work on the practice field. I don’t want to just throw it out there and see if it works.”
In other words, Capers doesn’t think So’oto is ready, or at least hasn’t thought it up to now.
“Once we see him perform on the practice field to where we feel good that he’s ready to go out there and perform in whatever number of plays he has, then he’ll get his chance,” Capers said.
Still, you wonder if it’s time to take a calculated chance. The Packers are 8-0 and have been the NFL’s best team the first half of the season, but unbeaten or not, they need help getting to the quarterback. Anyone who’s watched all their games knows the rush has been lacking, and in case there was any doubt, the numbers bear it out.
According to STATS, a company that tracks myriad NFL statistics based on detailed game-tape study, the Packers have suffered a drastic decline in their ability to put heat on quarterbacks from last year.
In 2010, they finished No. 5 in the NFL in pressures percentage, that is, in combined sacks, knockdowns and hurries, relative to passes attempted. Their rate of a sack, hit or hurry once every 4.6 passes was behind only Oakland, the New York Giants, Philadelphia and Detroit in 2010. Halfway through this season, they rank No. 26 with a sack, knockdown or hurry once every 5.8 passes.
Sacks stats tell the same story. They ranked No. 3 in sacks percentage last season; they’re No. 22 this year.
There still are eight games to play in 2011, and teams change over a long season as they lose players to injury, watch others decline in performance and still others take off.
So maybe, for instance, defensive end Mike Neal will come back from knee surgery in the next couple of weeks and provide some badly needed inside rush when he gets into game shape. He’s the Packers’ best hope because of the talent he’s flashed when healthy, though it’s a big if, considering he’s played in only two games in 1½ seasons in the NFL.
Maybe outside linebacker Clay Matthews will get more tangible results as a rusher the second half of the season, though a closer look at his performance suggests he’s already doing plenty despite having only three sacks.
Last season, Matthews finished No. 4 in the NFL in sacks with 14½, which is the main reason he was runner-up for league defensive player of the year. He also had 23 knockdowns and 14 hurries, for a total of 51½ combined pressures (i.e., sacks, knockdowns and hurries).
Halfway through this year, he has 14 knockdowns and 11½ hurries, which along with his three sacks gives him 28½ pressures. At that pace, he’ll have 57 for the season, 5½ more than last year. Sacks are better because they cost the offense yardage, a down and sometimes include a fumble. But the numbers suggest Matthews still is affecting quarterback play.
“He has been extremely effective in the things we’ve asked him to do,” Capers said. “That’s why I don’t get too hung up on sacks. I keep saying, ‘Just keep playing the way you’ve been playing, those things will come.’”
After Matthews, right outside linebacker Erik Walden ranks second on the team in pressures, though it’s a steep drop to Walden’s 12½ (three sacks, 7½ knockdowns, three hurries). Walden had one of his best games of the season last week at San Diego with a sack, a quarterback hit and two tackles for a loss.
But maybe playing on some obvious passing downs So’oto could bring a little more rush opposite Matthews, maybe enough to make a difference. There at least is some evidence it’s a possibility.
The undrafted rookie was the defensive star of the Packers’ preseason and unlike another undrafted rookie at outside linebacker, the 234-pound Jamari Lattimore, So’oto has an NFL-ready body as the Packers’ biggest outside rusher at 265 pounds.
So’oto also has done it in games and against starters, even if it was the preseason. Against Indianapolis in the third preseason game, So’oto had one sack against starting right tackle Jeff Linkenbach. Then against Kansas City in the preseason finale, So’oto beat starting right tackle Barry Richardson for one sack plus a holding penalty, beat tight end Leonard Pope for a half sack, and by the fourth quarter was drawing double teams.
No doubt it’s hard not to defer to the judgment of Capers and his defensive staff. Their record, including last season’s Super Bowl run, speaks for itself.
And maybe if given the chance, So’oto wouldn’t be ready to do anything even for a handful of snaps a game. But maybe 8-0 is the time to find out.