Silverstein: Packers pass rushers are paper tigers
GREEN BAY – It’s very possible the Green Bay Packers will come out of their upcoming two-game stretch against a couple of door stops with enough sacks to make it seem like they’re having an ordinary year getting after the quarterback.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers come into Lambeau Field on Sunday hoping to protect erratic quarterback Jameis Winston with an offensive line missing right tackle Demar Dotson and center Ali Marpet, both of whom were put on injured reserve last week.
The Cleveland Browns, the Packers’ opponent the following Sunday, are tied with the Denver Broncos with the third most sacks allowed (36) this season.
So, instead of being on pace for 32 sacks this season, their fewest since coordinator Dom Capers’ 32nd-ranked defense managed just 29 in 2011, they may very well be on pace for 40 or more by the time mid-December comes around.
Regardless of whether that happens, the Packers sound much better on paper than they really are when it comes to sacking quarterbacks. Bring up the names Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Mike Daniels and Ahmad Brooks to any coach preparing to face the Packers defense and he’ll be concerned.
“It’s a concern because they are deep at outside linebacker,” Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter said at a news conference in Tampa this past week. “I think they roll about five guys a game through there.
“It’s not just the two (Perry and Matthews), who are their top two, but they’ve got three or four other guys. Then when they are healthy, they’ve got two really tough guys on the inside, too.”
Koetter is not wrong that the Packers have a lot of guys they can roll through their front seven, but what he’s not mentioning is that Perry, despite having seven sacks, hasn’t been a constant threat and badly needs Matthews on the field to help him get to the quarterback.
For all the criticism Matthews seems to get for not producing sacks like he once did (he has 3 ½ this season and hasn’t had double-digit sacks since 2014), he still leads the team in quarterback knockdowns with eight, trails Perry (nine) by one for the lead in pressures and ranks fourth in tackles for loss with four.
Even though Matthews gets moved around some, Perry is the featured rusher on defense. He has lobbied to rush from the right side most of his career because the bulk of his sacks come when he’s lined up there, and defensive coordinator Dom Capers has complied this season.
By unofficial count, Perry has lined up on the right side about 83 percent of the time.
The most telling statistic is that on Perry’s eight sack plays (six full sacks and two half-sacks), Matthews has been on the field for every single one. On Perry’s six quarterback hits, Matthews has been on the field for three.
On the flip side, Perry was on the field on three of Matthews’ four sack plays and five of his eight quarterback hits.
What it means is that when teams can slide their line to one of the two or line up a tight end or running back to a particular side, neither is having much success. The Packers do not have a play-wrecker like Terrell Suggs or Cameron Heyward or Everson Griffin or DeMarcus Lawrence or Cameron Jordan – all opponents they’ve faced this season – to thwart double teams.
It was particularly evident against Pittsburgh on Sunday night.
Capers badly needed his front four to get to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but with Matthews out with a groin injury, Perry was targeted by the Steelers most of the night. On more than half of his rushes, the Steelers either double-teamed him with a guard, lined up a tight end next to the tackle or put a back to his side.
Perry played 50 of 74 snaps and finished with no sacks, no pressures and one quarterback hit.
On that night, Capers chose to double cover receiver Antonio Brown as much as possible and rushed more than four only a handful of times. The plan was to play zone and make Roethlisberger hold the ball so the rush eventually could get to him.
Roethlisberger did a magnificent job of getting rid of the ball on time, using many three-step drops to confound the Packers' defense.
“When we’ve gotten five one-on-ones (with pass rushers) and we’ve had our best guys out there, we’ve had pretty good results with it,” Capers said in explaining how he usually plays it. “We’re always trying to find ways to keep them from putting a guy and a half or two guys on our better rushers. You have to have enough variation.
“The challenge is, if you’ve got two good receivers, how much are you going to leave your guys one-on-one with those receivers?”
In other words, there are times you can’t blitz to create those one-on-ones upfront. Sometimes you need your best players to beat some double-teams.
With Matthews and nose tackle Kenny Clark sidelined, Capers still had Perry, Kyler Fackrell, Vince Biegel and Brooks to rush from the outside and Daniels from the inside. Some of those guys should have taken advantage of the attention Perry was receiving.
But Perry, who received an $18.5 million signing bonus as part of a five-year deal during the offseason, needed to overcome the obstacles in front of him. He’s a very good run defender, but he got nowhere against Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva rushing the passer.
Perry, who played with a club on his broken hand for several weeks and then a splint, is no longer listed on the injury report for his hand. He has been listed since after the Week 9 Detroit game with a foot injury, but has played 71 percent of the snaps the last three games.
It’s unclear how much the foot is bothering him.
Perry had a very good game against Dallas all-pro Tyron Smith (one sack, two pressures, a quarterback hit and a forced fumble) and Chicago veteran Charles Leno (three sacks in the second meeting). He had 1 ½ sacks against Seattle’s Rees Odhiambo, who was making his first career start.
But facing backups vs. Detroit and Baltimore, he managed just a half sack and two quarterback hits. Veterans such as Minnesota’s Riley Reiff, New Orleans’ banged-up Terron Armstead, Atlanta’s Jake Matthews and Villanueva have won out over him.
Matthews will be back for the Buccaneers and bears just as much responsibility as Perry for sacking the quarterback. There are no excuses when both are in the game because if one is being double-teamed the other should be providing some pressure.
If they’re both being double-teamed that’s a win for the defense since it means fewer receivers out in the secondary. Anything Brooks, Fackrell and Biegel can add, Capers gladly will accept. He’ll continue to work on creating one-on-ones for his two stars with blitzes that spread out the blockers.
But Perry and Matthews are paid like elite pass rushers and getting double-teamed isn’t an excuse for not getting to the quarterback. When the likes of Carolina, Minnesota and Detroit show up, that’s when the numbers really count.