Analysis: With inside rush lacking, Packers' Mike Pettine must adjust

Pete Dougherty and Eric Baranczyk
Green Bay Press-Gazette
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Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine watches warmups before an NFL preseason game at Lambeau Field on Thursday, August 9, 2018 in Green Bay, Wis. 
Adam Wesley/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

GREEN BAY - The Green Bay Packers were looking for their inside pass rush to make up for what they lacked on the outside.

But two games into the season, those hopes are looking misplaced.

Credit the Packers’ interior defensive line for stopping the run. With Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark and Muhammad Wilkerson playing the bulk of snaps, the Packers’ run defense appears to be as good as just about any in the league. It helped hold a good running back, Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook, to 38 yards on 10 carries Sunday.

But while Daniels, Clark and Wilkerson are better than average inside rushers, none is dominant. Collectively, there’s no sign they’ll make the difference it will take to bother the best quarterbacks the Packers will face this season without more blitzing.

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In the first two games, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has opted to emphasize coverage over sending extra rushers. It worked against Mitch Trubisky, the Chicago Bears’ young quarterback. It didn’t work against the veteran Kirk Cousins, who proved Sunday that when given time, he can inflict a lot of damage.

The Packers sacked Cousins twice and pressured him a few other times in the 29-29 tie Sunday. But they didn’t move him off his spot or make him uncomfortable with any consistency, and it caught up with them in the second half with starting cornerback Kevin King out of the lineup because of a groin injury.

Cousins finished with big numbers (118.8 rating, 425 yards passing) and put up three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to tie the game. There were too many snaps where he sat in the pocket like he was at a shooting gallery. If you can’t at least make decent quarterbacks uncomfortable in this league, that’s what’s going to happen.

The Packers have known at least from the draft, and really earlier than that, that their outside rush would be a problem. But Pettine has said he puts a premium on inside rush. That’s why the Packers signed Wilkerson as a free agent. Twice in his career, the 28-year-old Wilkerson has hit double-digits in sacks (10½ in 2013, 12 in ’15). Given all the bodies inside rushers have to fight through to get to the quarterback, 10 sacks for them probably is equivalent to 14 or 15 for an outside rusher.

But the last two seasons combined with the New York Jets, Wilkerson had only eight sacks. He has great length and size (6-4, 315), but he’s no longer the quick player who had those big-sacks seasons early in his career.

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Daniels, in the meantime, has 25 sacks in the last five seasons, an average of five a year. And Clark had 4½ last season, all in the last five games, and at age 22 (23 in October) is still a young player who figures to improve. Both are good rushers, but neither is a double-digit sacks guy.

They form a good, solid trio, and all will have some big moments. But they’re not creating havoc for quarterbacks down in and down out. All signs suggest Pettine will have to find other ways to do that.

We don’t want to get over-simplistic about blitzing, because you can’t just blitz willy-nilly in this league. But looking at the Vikings’ final three possessions Sunday — one in the final 1:45 of regulation, and two in overtime — is telling.

On those three series, the Vikings went 75 yards for the game-tying touchdown, then twice got into field-goal range in overtime. On Cousins’ 18 passes on the three possessions combined, Pettine sent five rushers or more only once. And on the 15 times Pettine rushed four or less (two others were hard to tell because they were play-action passes), he got pressure on Cousins only twice.

That approach didn’t work because Cousins is good enough to win from the pocket if he has time. The key is not just to sack, but to at least get him off his spot, or make him get rid of the ball quickly or force him to make some plays on the move.

This week the Packers face just about the same guy in Washington’s Alex Smith. Down the road are several other top quarterbacks: Matthew Stafford (twice), Tom Brady, Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan.

And to win a Super Bowl, you’ll probably have to beat at least two of the top passers in the league.

Whether the Packers’ approach against Cousins was more McCarthy or Pettine, they’re going to have to do what coaches are paid to do. They learn about their teams early in the season, find what works and what doesn’t and adjust on the fly.

Pettine learned NFL defense from Rex Ryan, whose specialty was exotic disguises and blitzes on passing downs. It looks like he’s going to have to reach deep into his playbook this year.

Getting the drop

To win big games in the NFL, you need your best players to make plays, and Sunday, the Packers’ best receiver had a chance for two tough touchdown catches in the final two minutes, either of which would have sealed the game, and both times he failed to come up with the ball.

On the first, Aaron Rodgers made a good throw moving to his right that Davante Adams had in his hands but linebacker Eric Kendricks stripped out as they went to the ground. On the second, Rodgers made a good back-shoulder throw that bounced off Adams’ forearms after he’d been hand fighting with cornerback Xavier Rhodes. Rhodes’ coverage was tight, but he never touched the ball.

Neither was an easy catch for Adams, but they were the kind teams need from their best receiver to win a game against what figures to be one of the NFC’s top Super Bowl contenders.

Extra points

» You have to like the way first-round pick Jaire Alexander competes. The rookie cornerback contests everything and fights hard. His interception of Cousins’ bomb that was nullified by Clay Matthews’ controversial roughing-the-passer penalty was a tough over-the-shoulder catch. Alexander also showed his aggressiveness when he flew up to drop Stefon Diggs for a one-yard loss on a swing pass in overtime. And even on Adam Thielen’s game-tying 22-yard touchdown pass, Alexander didn’t have bad coverage on Thielen’s double move.

» Speaking of Thielen’s touchdown, how did safety Kentrell Brice not make a play on that ball? He was there in time to at least deflect it but for some reason didn’t sell out for the ball. It almost appeared as if he was trying to avoid crashing into Alexander.


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