Mike Pettine was banking on his inside pass rushers to put more than their share of heat on quarterbacks this season.
It took four games, but the Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator finally got it.
A review of the game video of the Packers’ 22-0 win over Buffalo on Sunday showed that Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels had their best games rushing the passer of the young season, and that Dean Lowry is looking like a credible replacement for injured Muhammad Wilkerson on the defensive line as well.
REPORT CARD: Position evaluation vs. Bills
Neither Clark nor Daniels sacked Bills quarterback Josh Allen, and in fact didn’t have a quarterback hit on the official stat sheet either. But they pushed the pocket better than they had the first three games, and that made life a lot harder for the overmatched Allen.
Granted, the Packers’ seven sacks came against a rookie quarterback making only his third NFL start. Allen looked overwhelmed much of the game, and in the same circumstances a veteran quarterback is going to be more aware and not take all those sacks. This week, for instance, Detroit’s talented 10-year vet Matthew Stafford will be much tougher to get to.
Still, there’s no denying that Clark and Daniels were more effective as rushers Sunday than they were the first three weeks. Even when it didn’t lead to sacks, a couple times they forced Allen off his spot or to get the ball out sooner than he wanted, which was something the rush hadn’t done much of the first three weeks of the season.
Among Daniels’ best moments of a good game came on back-to-back plays early in the second quarter when he created a sack for Clay Matthews and Nick Perry on second down and then pressured Allen into an incompletion on third down to get the defense off the field.
On the sack, Daniels bull rushed guard John Miller back into Allen. Tackles usually try to push outside rushers past the quarterback, but for that to work the quarterbacks needs room to step up, and Daniels so dominated Miller that Allen had nowhere to go with Matthews closing in on the front side and Perry on the back side.
On the next play, Daniels lined up at right end and pushed left tackle Dion Dawkins straight back. Though he didn’t sack Allen, Daniels bumped the quarterback as he threw, causing a flutter ball that landed about five yards short of its target for an incompletion.
Clark also got more push as the game went on, and it paid off on two sacks he helped set up early in the fourth quarter. On the first, the Bills were so concerned with Clark that Miller doubled him with center Russell Bodine, which gave Blake Martinez a wide blitzing alley straight to Allen. On the very next play, Clark beat right guard Vladimir Ducasse on an outside stunt, and when Allen stepped up he walked right into Kyler Fackrell, who got just enough of his legs to tip the quarterback over.
Clark, Daniels and Lowry also had a good day against the run — McCoy and Chris Ivory combined for only 39 yards rushing on 11 attempts — and helped set the tone for the day on a third-and-one stop on the Bills’ game-opening three-and-out. On that play, Clark, Daniels and Lowry all won off the snap and displaced the offensive line, which allowed safety Kentrell Brice and linebackers Matthews, Antonio Marrison and Martinez to stop Ivory for no gain.
The Packers caught Allen early in his rookie season and took advantage. But for Pettine’s defense to be any better than Dom Capers’ of the last few years, he’s going to need to Clark and Daniels to keep playing like they did Sunday against the Matthew Staffords, Tom Bradys, Russell Wilsons and Matt Ryans of the world.
Jones on the run
Coach Mike McCarthy isn’t going to say it publicly, but his plan with Aaron Jones seems straight forward: He’s limiting Jones’ snaps now because he wants his best running back healthy and effective at season’s end.
It’s hard to argue with that approach. Last year as a rookie Jones tore the MCL in one knee, missed three games, then tore his other MCL in late December. This year, he missed three weeks of training camp because of a pulled hamstring. He’s not a big guy (208 pounds) and doesn’t appear to be real durable. So as much as the Packers would like to get him 20 touches a game, they’re probably smart to keep it to more like 15.
Over the course of this season, that could mean 70 or fewer times when he’s taking a hit. Sunday against Buffalo, for instance, Jones had 12 touches (11 carries, one reception). But in those 12 touches he again showed the explosiveness he brings to the offense with a 30-yard run included in his 65 yards rushing. It doesn’t take an expert to see that when he’s on the field, the Packers’ offense is different and better.
But even with that long-term plan, there are going to be some games where Jones needs to play a bigger role, and this week could be one. When they go to Detroit on Sunday, the Packers might be missing two of their top three receivers — Geronimo Allison (concussion against Buffalo) and Randall Cobb (hamstring, inactive) — and without them, where’s the offense going to come from?
If Allison and Cobb can’t play (or if Cobb plays but is limited), Detroit will build its defense around stopping Davante Adams and Jimmy Graham. Rookies Marquez Valdes-Scantling and J’Mon Moore will be on the field more, but both are raw and don’t have Aaron Rodgers’ trust yet. The stage probably will be too big this early in their careers to count on them for much.
Under those circumstances, Jones offers the best chance to pick up the Packers’ offense in this big NFC North game. He’s capable of ripping off a 15-, 20- or 30-yard gain on any given run. He’s their best guy with the ball in his hands, and this could be a week where he needs 20 or more touches if the Packers are going to beat a team that’s always dangerous with Matthew Stafford at quarterback.
» Veteran Byron Bell played at least as well at right guard as Justin McCray had before the latter hurt his shoulder last week. Bell held up well in pass protection, where his long arms give him an advantage over McCray. In fact, if McCray misses more games, and Bell keeps playing like he did against Buffalo, it’s not a given that McCray will get his starting job back.
» Safety Jermaine Whitehead is looking like an effective blitzer from the slot. Whitehead picked up his first sack of the season on a slot blitz late in the third quarter. Then on back-to-back blitzes in the fourth quarter he first forced Josh Allen into a throwaway, and then when Allen saw him blitzing on the next snap the quarterback bolted the pocket even though he probably didn’t need to. Kenny Clark ended up forcing a fumble when he tackled Allen after a two-yard gain.