Packers analysis: Lack of premier pass rusher remains most glaring weakness

Eric Baranczyk and Pete Dougherty
Green Bay Press-Gazette
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Green Bay Packers linebacker Reggie Gilbert (93) pressures Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph (2) in the second quarter of an NFL preseason game at Lambeau Field on Thursday, August 16, 2018 in Green Bay, Wis.

The Green Bay Packers’ pass rush looks as shaky now as it did going into the offseason.

They have some solid inside rushers in Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark and Muhammad Wilkerson. But on the outside, they have real issues, Reggie Gilbert’s eye-catching play in the preseason notwithstanding.

We all know the story of their two best outside linebackers, Clay Matthews and Nick Perry.

Matthews, 32, remains an excellent all-around player who would be the team’s best inside linebacker if it played him there. But he has a long history of getting hurt – not just injuries that sideline him, but injuries he plays through that nonetheless render him a far less effective player. He’s also not as explosive an athlete as he was in his 20s and hasn’t had double-digit sacks in a season since 2014.

Perry, likewise, has a long injury history that has caused him to miss 24 of 96 games and at other times left him a diminished player. He ended last season on IR, had offseason ankle surgery and still is on the PUP list.

Overall, the Packers have some players with pass-rush ability, especially on the inside, but they don’t have anyone who truly frightens an opponent and helps win big games against the game’s best quarterbacks. We’re talking about guys such as an Aaron Donald, Fletcher Cox, Von Miller, a healthy J.J. Watt or a Cameron Jordan of last season, to name a few.

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Gilbert no doubt has been one of the standouts of the Packers’ preseason. He had a quarterback hit in the opener against Tennessee, then put up 2 ½ sacks, including a strip sack, Thursday night against Pittsburgh. His is an appealing underdog story, and there certainly are things to like about him.

Judging by the way he plays he loves football, and his motor is non-stop. When he engages with a blocker, he keeps his hands and feet working and doesn’t get stuck. He just keeps working until he gets free. He’s clearly the Packers’ No. 3 outside rusher now, so kudos to him for making his way up the ladder the last couple years.

But the question is whether he’s just good enough to make plays against backups, or if he’s a legitimate backup who will make an impact in real NFL games.

For all Gilbert has done in the preseason, that question remains because Gilbert doesn’t win with suddenness and torque off the edge, like Matthews did as a young player, or with the pocket-collapsing power that is one of Perry’s strengths.

While Gilbert has shown he should be part of the rotation, he’s still more an effort than talent player. It’s not hard to see him getting five or so sacks this season, but it will take a big leap for him to get near or reach double digits.

The Packers really need someone who can add some juice to their pass rush, and nobody else has emerged as even a threat.

Vince Biegel, the fourth-round pick from last year, has been healthy in camp after having his rookie season essentially washed out by surgery on both feet. But he hasn’t flashed. In the Big Ten he could get around the corner and get off blocks. But in two preseason games hasn’t shown the quick first step or strength needed to win on the edge. 

Likewise, Kyler Fackrell opened some eyes when he won his first one-on-one rep early in camp against David Bakhtiari, but that was a mirage. Like his first two years in the NFL, he’s still struggling to shed blocks.

That’s why trading for Khalil Mack is an intriguing possibility, if in fact Oakland actually is open to dealing him. But that’s a big, big if.

The Packers also will be scrutinizing the waiver wires for a rusher, but really, the odds of finding one going that route are slim. Teams just don’t part with promising rushers.

With things as they are, the Packers have to hope new coordinator Mike Pettine really is a maestro at getting after the quarterback.

Cornered market

It looks like new general manager Brian Gutekunst has successfully upgraded the Packers’ talent at cornerback.

Three of the Packers’ top four cornerbacks could be new faces: Tramon Williams, Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson.

Even at age 35, Williams looks like he’s going to be worth the $5.25 million the Packers are paying him in salary and bonuses this season. In practice he’s looked quicker than you’d expect a player his age and showed it on the field Thursday night when he intercepted Steelers rookie quarterback Mason Rudolph on the first play of the game and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown.

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Alexander, the Packers’ first-round draft pick, is coming off a groin injury and played only one series Thursday night, not much to go off. But he’s shown enough quickness and competitiveness in practice that Pettine played him as a starter in the nickel defense with the team’s top cornerback, Kevin King, sidelined with a shoulder injury.

Alexander more than anything needs playing time. Now that he’s healthy, look for him to play a lot in the final two preseason games.

And Jackson, the Packers’ second-round pick, displayed the ball-hawking instincts that got him eight interceptions last season at Iowa. Playing in zone coverage in the third quarter, he read and jumped an out route, picked off first-year quarterback Joshua Dobbs and then kept his balance along the sidelines for a 22-yard touchdown return.

It’s looking like the Packers’ secondary will have the talent to take some things away from an opponent, which wasn’t the case last season.

Extra points

» Aaron Rodgers’ eight-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jimmy Graham looked routine, but it wasn’t. It was only possible because Graham has the size (6-6 ¼) and athleticism (38 ½-inch vertical at the NFL scouting combine in 2010) to go over anyone covering him. Rodgers can just throw the ball up and let Graham get it.

» JK Scott has shown too much talent in live punting drills in practice to get worried about his so-so punting in two preseason games. Scott has only a 40.9-yard gross average and 38-yard net average on seven punts. For anyone who’s watched him regularly in practice, his 29-yard shank and pooch punt that landed on the fly in the end zone against the Steelers were a little jarring. But Scott has shown too much ability in camp to think this is anything more than getting used to punting in NFL games.

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