Analysis: Packers' outside pass rush still looks shaky
Going into training camp, the Green Bay Packers’ biggest worry had to be their outside pass rush.
Two weeks in, we’ve seen nothing to alleviate that concern.
The Packers have two bona fide outside rushers in Clay Matthews and Nick Perry. Whatever their flaws, they have real pass-rush abilities.
But beyond them, the Packers don’t have anyone who has shown he’s going to add to their outside rush. It doesn’t mean it won’t happen, but it raises a big red flag for a couple reasons.
For one, Matthews and Perry have long, well-documented injury histories. Some of those injuries have sidelined them, others have compromised their play. Either way, anyone expecting both to get through the season in good shape is taking on long odds.
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Second, games are long and seasons are longer. You want your best rushers at their best in fourth quarters and late in the year, when games and titles are on the line. The more rest Matthews and Perry get, the better. But somebody has to play in their place, and you don’t want that costing you games, either.
The Packers drafted fourth-round pick Vince Biegel to possibly be that next guy. They also thought Kyler Fackrell or Jayrone Elliott could graduate to the role. But so far, no one has emerged.
Biegel has been out with a broken foot since May, and the Packers have given no indication when he might return. Maybe it will be in a week or two, or maybe he’ll stay on PUP and miss about half the season. Either way, he already has missed enough football to question how much he can help the Packers in 2017.
And neither Fackrell (two sacks last season) nor Elliott (one sack) has done anything noteworthy in camp. That includes the preseason opener Thursday night, though in fairness they didn’t exactly get an extended look against the Eagles (only 12 snaps each).
The hope for Fackrell was that he'd make big gains in his first year in the Packers' offseason workout program after general manager Ted Thompson spent a third-round pick on him in 2016. But for whatever strength gains Fackrell made in the weight room, it hasn't shown up in his play. He lacks power, and once an offensive lineman gets his hands on him, it’s over. He’s also still getting pushed around in the run game. You never know when the light might turn on, but there are no signs so far.
Elliott has flashed more than Fackrell, but just like last year he disappears for plays at a time. Their limited chances Thursday night included only four pass rushes each, but neither did anything to alter the impressions they’d made through two weeks of practice.
In addition, nobody has burst from the bottom of the depth chart to make a case for himself.
Reggie Gilbert (41 snaps) and Jonathan Calvin (40) are next in line and got the majority of playing time at outside linebacker against the Eagles. They’re fighting for probably one roster spot.
Gilbert, a practice-squad holdover, played better the deeper he went into the game, which is what you’re looking for. You don’t want guys playing down to the competition against the bottom of the 90-man roster.
He’s a powerful guy with heavy hands and had a couple good power rushes and one quarterback hit against the Eagles. But he hasn’t shown the ability that good rushers have to flip their hips and turn the corner, or the first-step explosion often needed to win.
Calvin, an undrafted rookie from Mississippi State, has a decent spin move. But overall he has been average as well.
So the red flags for the Packers’ outside rush remain. In fact, defensive coordinator Dom Capers showed against Philadelphia that he’s planning on manufacturing a rush with blitzes and scheme.
Capers sent several combinations of cornerbacks, safeties and linebackers Thursday night. Nickel cornerback Damarious Randall set up the Packers’ lone sack (Perry) by chasing quarterback Carson Wentz off his spot.
On another rush Capers even tried something that might have been a first: Matthews lined up on the inside, not standing as he’s often done in the past but with his hand on the ground. On that play he came free for shot at Wentz, but the quarterback slipped out of the potential sack.
The Packers have the offense to win by simply outscoring teams. But somewhere along the line, especially in the fourth quarter of close games, they’re going to need a stop. Will they have the pass rush to get it?
Looks like Taysom Hill could be a real contender to Joe Callahan for the No. 3 quarterback job, whether that role is on the 53-man roster or practice squad.
On Hill’s second series Thursday night, in the final 3:04 of the game, he led the Packers on an 82-yard touchdown drive. But just as important was the way he looked doing it. He showed poise, mobility and decent arm strength while putting up a maximum passer rating (158.3) by going 4-for-5 passing for 69 yards and a touchdown.
Hill has a chance to beat out Callahan because of his upside. Hill has good size (6-2, 230) and athleticism (4.46 40, 38 ½-inch vertical), and a stronger-than-average arm. Callahan, on the other hand, has moxie, and the Packers’ coaching staff clearly likes him. But he doesn’t have as much raw potential. He’s smaller (6-1, 216), has an average arm at best by NFL standards, and while he shows scrambling ability isn’t nearly as athletic (4.98 40, 33-inch vertical) as Hill.
It’s just one series in one game, but Hill’s play was kind of a surprise. What stood out was that he kept his eyes downfield while avoiding rushers. He was looking to throw first, not run. And his seven-yard touchdown pass to undrafted rookie receiver Michael Clark was a nice jump-ball throw.
Callahan (81 passer rating, 10-for-16 for 103 yards) clearly has a better grasp of the offense than Hill after splitting parts of last season on the Packers’ practice squad and 53-man roster. He’s resourceful and exciting. But a lot of his plays look like jailbreaks, and his throws don’t have as much zip as Hill’s.
When it’s time to make the call at the end of training camp, the Packers will have to think about a year or two down the road more than today, and decide who will make the better backup when Brett Hundley leaves. Hill has three more games to make his case.
» Defensive lineman Brian Price, a practice-squad returnee, looks like a good bet for the final roster as a rotational player to defend the run. He doesn’t have the long arms or play with the leverage that recently cut Letroy Guion did, but he at least has shown the lower-body strength to drive on single blockers and not get blown off the ball on double teams in the run game.
» It’s hard not to like undrafted rookie guard Geoff Gray. He blocks to the whistle, and was better in pass protection against the Eagles than he was on Family Night, which is a good sign. On Thursday night he got out on a screen pass and blocked a defensive back. He’s a great practice-squad candidate.
— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week during the season. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1