Carson Palmer needs only to turn on the game film to see the biggest difference in the Green Bay Packers’ defense now compared to a few years ago.
The Arizona Cardinals quarterback will notice the undrafted rookies and waiver-wire finds that used to fill the team’s rotation at outside linebacker have been replaced by a deep and prodigious group that consists of four first-round picks and a former second-rounder at the top of the depth chart.
Once more, they’re healthy. That was evident in Sunday’s 35-18 win over Washington when the Packers pressured Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins into oblivion, racking up six sacks and 12 quarterback hits despite defensive coordinator Dom Capers mostly utilizing a four-man rush.
Now, they have Palmer in their cross hairs.
“They have – I was counting on film – I think seven guys who can rush the passer,” Palmer said Tuesday. “Really, really physical group. There’s not a small quick, fast guy there. They’re all big. They all run well. They’re all really strong at the point of attack. They can set the edge.
“It’s just a very, very solid group with no weaknesses.”
It hasn’t always been that way in Green Bay. Too often Capers has been left scrapping the barrel to find outside linebackers healthy enough to start for the Packers this time of year.
Capers coached half the 2013 season without Clay Matthews (broken thumb) and then lost Mike Neal only five snaps into the Packers’ wild-card playoff game against San Francisco. That left him with only Nick Perry (playing on a broken foot), Andy Mulumba (playing through a torn MCL) and rookie Nate Palmer available to pressure 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
All of their primary edge rushers were active during last year’s run to the NFC title game, but Perry (shoulder) and Neal (sports hernia) were playing through injuries that would require offseason surgery. Matthews was dealing with a variety of ailments that finally sidelined him near the end of regulation in that game at Seattle.
Amid all of Green Bay’s injury problems this season – and there have been plenty – the outside linebackers entered the playoffs surprisingly healthy. Matthews (ankle) and Perry (shoulder) dropped off the injury report completely this week, while Neal (hip) was the only one who wasn’t a full participant in Wednesday’s practice.
The overall health of the position coincides with one of their best performances of the year in Washington. The pressure generated against Cousins resulted in holding the red-hot quarterback under a 100 passer rating for the first time since Week 11.
“I think it's special,” defensive tackle B.J. Raji said of the outside linebackers. “I had a chance to watch the film coming back on the plane and I was just ... I've seen these guys play a bunch of times, but just the effort, the skill, in my eyes it was evident that these guys wanted to win the game and to make a statement. I think that's what we did. I think everything played off of each other.”
Perry (2½ sacks, three hits), Neal (two sacks, three hits), Matthews (1½ sacks, three hits), Peppers (two hits) and Jones (one hit) all got in on the action in Washington. Now, it’s up to them to do it again against Palmer, who was sacked twice and hit only four times in their 38-8 loss to Arizona last month.
The re-emergence of Perry against Washington is the best sign for the pass rush. The 2012 first-round pick has had his moments, but has struggled to stay healthy. He has missed 18 games during his first four NFL seasons due to knee, wrist, foot and shoulder injuries.
Perry, playing through a shoulder sprain, has been known to set a good edge against the run, but went nine games without a sack after the bye week before breaking out against Washington. It’s no secret to his teammates why Perry was successful.
“When Nick is healthy, Nick can play,” said Peppers, who led the defense with 10½ sacks this year. “Nick can rush the passer just as good as anyone. It was good to see him out there perform. He’s healthy. I think we’re pretty healthy as a group. We’re going to try to keep that momentum going into this next game.”
There was a time not too long ago when the Packers frequently turned to undrafted free agents such as Frank Zombo, Vic So’oto, Dezman Moses and Mulumba to get through the season. For a while, their steadiest rusher opposite Matthews was Erik Walden, who was plucked off the waiver wire midway through the 2010 season.
The Packers have been building toward their current configuration for three years with the signing of Peppers in March 2014, the conversion of Neal from defensive lineman and the selection of Perry and Datone Jones in the first round of consecutive drafts.
None of the four are traditional 3-4 outside linebackers, but the emergence of the elephant position has hastened their transition. The depth allowed Green Bay to not carry an undrafted rookie outside linebacker on its roster for the first time since 2010.
The depth has allowed Capers to take reps off Peppers, who turns 36 on Monday, without giving up pressure. It was that rotation Capers credited for Perry being able to beat Washington all-pro left tackle Trent Williams for two sacks Sunday.
“Being able to mix up the front and putting guys on different sides, it just does something to the offense,” Neal said. “They game plan just like how we do. They look and they know 96 will be on this side, 56 will be on that side or 53 will be on that side. We’ve been able to mix that up and keep guys healthy and they’ve been doing a good job with us.”
There’s been a direct correlation between the Packers’ ability to pressure the opposing quarterback and winning this season. Green Bay has averaged one sack and 3.2 hits in its six losses this season compared to 3.9 sacks and eight hits in its 11 wins. The Packers are 10-0 this season when hitting the quarterback at least five times.
Green Bay’s pass rushers struggled to get to Palmer last month and the 36-year-old quarterback picked the defense apart. The return of cornerback Sam Shields from a concussion would provide a significant boost to the secondary, but the outside linebackers understand it's up to them to set the tempo regardless.
“When you can affect the quarterback, get him off the spot and force him to make throws that he don’t want to make, your pass rush becomes very dangerous,” Jones said. “It becomes effective and forces quarterbacks to have to sit in the pocket and throw the ball. That’s our main goal, to force quarterbacks into bad positions to create turnovers for our offense. We have to bring that same mentality this week.
“It’s playoff football. We lose this one and we’re going home.”
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