Packers' pass rush is on

Eric Baranczyk and Pete Dougherty
Press-Gazette Media
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Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews (52) sacks St. Louis Rams quarterback Nick Foles (5) in the fourth quarter at Lambeau Field.

After five games, the Green Bay Packers rank No. 2 in the NFL in sacks. According to Pro Football Focus’ grading system, they have the third most effective pass rush in the league.

So what’s going on? How did they seemingly overnight become one of the NFL’s best teams at pressuring quarterbacks without adding any new key pass rushers?

Much of the answer goes back to coach Mike McCarthy’s and defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ decision to move Clay Matthews to inside linebacker.

They made the move halfway through last season, and it’s worth pointing out that in the eight games Matthews played inside in 2014, the Packers’ ranked No. 9 in the NFL in sacks with 23.

But so far this season they're rushing the passer even better. Their three-sack, 12-quarterback-hit performance in a 24-10 win over the St. Louis Rams on Sunday was only the latest evidence of that.

There are two points to Matthews' critical role in the improvement. One, he and Capers are changing up the timing of some of his blitzes,which is making him more effective on his own. And two, just the threat of him blitzing inside is setting up all the other rushers with more one-on-one chances, and more often than not someone is winning his matchup.

Look at the Packers’ rush stats. For the season, Matthews and Julius Peppers lead the team with 4½ sacks each. But six other players have at least half a sack.

A review of Sunday’s game video shows both factors in action.

Defense again lifts struggling offense

Matthews displayed improved timing of his blitzes most noticeably on early rushes. On two plays — the brutal shot in which he put his helmet into quarterback Nick Foles’ rib cage just as the quarterback released a pass, and a sack five plays later — Matthews waited a beat or two before rushing instead of trying to shoot through a gap right off the snap.

By the time he made his move, the Rams' offensive linemen were matched up, so Matthews was able to pick an open lane and explode through it unblocked. On the first he got there quickly enough to force Foles into a quick throw and deliver a punishing blow to Foles' chest. On the second, he made the sack.

But probably more important to the Packers’ rush are the problems Matthews' effective inside rushes pose for offensive lines. When Matthews lines up at inside linebacker, the line never knows whether he’s rushing somewhere in the middle or dropping into coverage. So the center and two guards have to account for him. That makes it harder for a guard to slide to Peppers’ side, regardless of whether Matthews rushes, but especially if he does.

If there’s a running back in for protection, he has to look first for the more immediate threat Matthews poses, rather than help on the outside rush or slip out of the backfield for a check-down pass.

The seemingly ageless Peppers had a big game Sunday with a strip sack and by unofficial count three other hits. One of the hits caused an interception; the sack also forced a fumble. And on both plays he beat one-on-one matchups with Matthews lined up at middle linebacker.

On the first, Matthews blitzed up the middle and was picked up by left guard Jamon Brown. That left Peppers one-on-one with left tackle Greg Robinson, and Peppers’ bull rushed him into Foles’ lap. Foles’ flutter ball was intercepted by Micah Hyde.

On the second, the Rams slid their interior protection Matthews' way even though he didn't rush. That left Peppers matched not only one-on-one, but against a 250-pound tight end, Lance Kendricks. Peppers plowed through him and popped the ball out of Foles’ hand.

The Packers were helped Sunday by Foles’ immobility. But what’s helping their balanced pass rush more is Matthews' disruptive play as an inside rusher. That has given Peppers, Mike Daniels, Mike Neal and Nick Perry more chances one-on-one, and they’ve been good enough to take advantage.

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Agent of Shields

Sam Shields is playing like one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL.

On Sunday, he again displayed his world-class athletic ability and made two huge plays that helped the Packers beat the Rams.

The biggest was late in the second quarter, when on a third-and-4 from the Packers’ 24, Foles took a shot at the end zone rather than go for the first down. The Packers blitzed, so Shields was left one-on-one outside with receiver Brian Quick, who at 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds is a tough cover for contested balls downfield.

Shields played off coverage, stayed stride for stride with Quick as the receiver continued to the end zone, then had enough left to make a strong leap to bat away the pass in the end zone. That was big, because a touchdown would have tied the game. Instead, the Rams kicked a field goal, and the Packers still led 14-10 at the half.

Shields also made a big-time play downfield on a go route to Rams receiver Tavon Austin, an explosive player who ran the 40 in 4.34 seconds at the NFL scouting combine two years ago. This, too, was a shot play against one-on-one coverage on a third down early in the second quarter, this time from the Rams’ 18.

Shields turned and ran with Austin, and broke up what could have a big gainer. He nearly picked off the pass. A completion would have flipped the field and perhaps changed the game. Instead, the Rams punted.

Extra points

» Josh Walker took most of the snaps at right guard after T.J. Lang injured his knee in the second quarter. However, Don Barclay played one series, in the Packers’ two-minute offense at the end of the first half. The Packers presumably wanted Barclay in the two-minute because he has far more playing and practice time in that setting. Barclay has started 21 games for the Packers, whereas Walker spent most of his rookie season last year on the Packers’ practice squad.

» You can’t pin the Rams’ successful fake punt on the Packers’ coaching staff. When Rams punter Johnny Hekker rolled to his right to throw after lining up to punt on a fourth-and-2 in the third quarter, the Packers appeared to have the play covered. Rookie cornerback Quinten Rollins, who lined up as the left edge rusher, was all over Hekker’s primary target in the left flat, running back Chase Reynolds, who had lined up as the personal protector. Hekker improvised and kept rolling to his right, and cornerback Demetri Goodson appeared to have Chase Davis covered a little farther downfield. However, Goodson slipped as Hekker threw a lob back across his body, and Davis caught it for the first down.

Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1 and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty

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