BOCA RATON, Fla. - Before last season, Mike McCarthy and Dom Capers sat down and mapped out a three-year plan to take the Green Bay Packers from a better-than-average defense to a championship-caliber unit.
Phase one was mostly a success. At its best, Green Bay’s defense in 2015 kept offenses out of the end zone, pressured the opposing quarterback into mistakes and made games winnable for a flawed offense. At its worst, the defense bled passing yards and endured extended sack droughts.
Statistically, the Packers probably finished the season where they belonged — 15th in total defense (346.7 yards per game), 12th in scoring (20.2 points per game) and tied for seventh in sacks (43). It was a solid showing by most accounts, but not quite to the level of the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos.
“You always want to do better,” McCarthy said at this week’s NFL owners meetings. “I think the biggest thing is the pressures, we’re getting there, we’re creating matchups and you look at it, it was definitely a positive, our scheme evaluation. And you don’t just stop there, it can be better.”
The Broncos won a Super Bowl with Peyton Manning at quarterback in name only. The reality is Denver’s run to the Lombardi Trophy was powered by a recent string of outstanding defensive draft classes, savvy free-agent moves and a pass rush capable of frazzling the NFL’s top quarterbacks.
Remember Aaron Rodgers’ career-low 77 passing yards last November? That wasn’t a one-week aberration. Wade Phillip’s defense made life 60 minutes of misery for nearly every quarterback it faced last season, including reigning league MVP Cam Newton in Super Bowl 50.
The Broncos led the league in total defense (283.1 yards per game), passing defense (199.6 ypg) and sacks (52) and finished fourth in opposing passer rating (78.8). Denver drubbed the Packers 29-10 in Week 8 with constant pressure and tight coverage. Green Bay finished with a mere 140 total yards in the loss.
As good as the Packers were at times last season, they struggled to contain Philip Rivers (503 passing yards), Manning (340 passing) and Newton (297 passing) during a rough midseason stretch. If not for that lull, Green Bay likely would have finished well inside the top five in pass defense.
Often, the excess passing yards coincided with an absent pass rush and the Packers weren’t alone. How important was it to pressure the quarterback in 2015? Nine of the NFL’s 10 playoff teams finished in the top 10 in sacks. Only Detroit (tied seventh) didn’t qualify for the postseason.
The Packers’ rotation of linebackers Julius Peppers (11 sacks) and Clay Matthews (6½) and defensive lineman Mike Daniels (four) made up the brunt of the rush that propelled the Packers to a 10-0 record when hitting the quarterback at least five times last season.
Conversely, they were 1-7 when failing to do so.
“You want as many different combinations as possible,” McCarthy said. “It’s creating matchup and targeting issues, too. The rush pattern and the rush rotation for the last year was probably our best year in my time here. We’ll see how it shakes out once the season hits but it’s something I know, from an offensive perspective, that creates a lot of problems.”
For that reason, it shouldn’t be a surprise why McCarthy has been so adamant about Matthews playing more at outside linebacker next season. His presence in the middle of the field was important for stopping the run and the defense as a whole, but his dip to 6½ sacks reflected the sacrifice they made.
In a perfect world, McCarthy wants Matthews’ starting point to be outside with a sprinkle of inside linebacker. The six-time Pro Bowler enjoyed the switch more than he anticipated, including the chance to relay defensive calls, but everyone knows how important he is to generating consistent pressure.
“We still have to move him around,” McCarthy said. “He’s a targeting issue for the offense and we can’t or we will not waste the experience that he’s gained going inside. It’s made him a lot more in tune and impact in our defense playing the inside, calling the defenses, so there’s a lot positive experiences that have occurred the last two years with him playing inside.”
Whatever need the Packers appear to have at inside linebacker wasn’t enough to entice general manager Ted Thompson to pull out the checkbook for Danny Trevathan or Jerrell Freeman in free agency. Instead, they’ve invested their money into their pass rush.
It started in December when the organization reached an agreement with Daniels on a four-year, $41 million extension. More recently, they re-signed nose tackle Letroy Guion (three years, $11.05 million) and Nick Perry (one year, $5 million).
While B.J. Raji’s retirement caught the Packers off guard, their pass rush may improve with Guion playing over the center next season. The ninth-year defensive lineman produced more pressure (3½ sacks) at nose tackle in 2014 than Raji did a year ago ( sack, no hits).
The Packers brought back Perry, a former first-round pick, on a one-year deal that pays him up to $1 million based on how many games he plays. He went without a sack during the last nine games of the regular season while nursing a shoulder injury before recording 3½ in two playoff games.
Looking to take snaps off the 36-year-old Peppers, McCarthy plans on giving Perry more pass-rush opportunities. Finally healthy, Perry is expected to participate in the Packers’ offseason program for the first time in his career, as well.
“His pass-rush opportunities versus his production was very high,” McCarthy said. “We had a rotation going there where Nick probably didn’t get the third-down opportunities he would have liked. But that’s definitely something we’ll look at as we move forward. Nick played good football. The biggest thing was that he was healthy.”
McCarthy also confirmed at the owners meetings that Datone Jones will concentrate on being an elephant pass-rusher. Like Peppers, the former first-round pick will line up anywhere from five-technique defensive end to nine-tech outside linebacker. Based on his 6-foot-4 frame, the organization doesn’t feel he needs to lose any weight to make the move on a permanent basis.
There’s still a chance the Packers could bring back Neal if the price is right, but things are starting to get congested at outside rusher with Perry, Jones and Jayrone Elliott (three sacks) all vying for snaps behind Matthews and Peppers, who have worked hand-in-hand with assistant coaches Winston Moss and Mike Trgovac in finding the striking the right balance in the pass rush.
The Packers have made a habit of lining rushers up at multiple positions over the last three years. While that creates unpredictability, it also limits how much work players get in a specific spot next to similar personnel.
McCarthy hopes familiarity and depth allows the Packers to gain more comfort and pressure with more consistency. The first year of their plan was a step in the right direction. This upcoming season is about taking it to another level.
“The thing you’ve got to worry about with multiplicity is, you start rolling all these different guys, you’ve got to make sure, particularly in the movement scheme, the stunt game and things like that, you spend enough time with certain guys working together,” McCarthy said. “Because there is a lot of timing that goes along with that technique, too. So we’ve just got to watch that we don’t get too cute and just stick to the way we’ve been going about.
“So how it shakes out and who’s going with who and so forth, that’s really for the season.”