Dougherty: The inside story of Packers' new pass-rush plan
Even Clay Matthews was surprised the Green Bay Packers waited until the seventh round of this year’s NFL draft to select an outside pass rusher.
The need was obvious: The age and injury histories of Matthews and Nick Perry, the Packers’ two best outside rushers, screamed out for quality help at that crucial position.
After the draft, general manager Brian Gutekunst shared his main reason for not drafting one earlier: This just wasn’t a good year for outside rushers. I don’t doubt his honesty on that point.
But even with a thin class, the GM had plenty of draft ammunition to maneuver around the board for an outside rusher in the first two or three rounds if he’d really wanted.
Then last week new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine provided the clue to another factor that might have played into Gutekunst’s thinking.
“People talk about the exterior pass rush,” Pettine said last week after a Packers OTA practice, “but I think the interior pass rush is as important or maybe potentially more important.”
The Packers’ new coordinator and scheme emphasize the inside rush, which is this defense’s strongest area. The Packers might have as much talent there as anyone in the NFL aside from the Los Angeles Rams (Aaron Donald) and Philadelphia Eagles (Fletcher Cox), who have the game’s two dominant inside rushers.
From that perspective, Gutekunst made his big offseason move before the draft by signing Muhammad Wilkerson in free agency. Wilkerson potentially gives the Packers three inside rushers, along with Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark, that offenses have to worry about. It’s “potentially” because the question is whether Wilkerson regains the form that made him a standout earlier in his career.
With Daniels and Clark, the Packers’ inside rush already looked promising. Daniels has put up consistently good numbers for an inside rusher (25 sacks the last five seasons) for several years. Clark had 4½ sacks in the final five games last season, and though he’s already entering his third year in the NFL, he’ll be only 23 on his next birthday, in October. He’s on the rise.
Wilkerson was available for $5 million plus incentives because his play nosedived after he signed a five-year, $86 million contract with the New York Jets in 2016. The Jets cut him in February after he had only eight sacks the last two seasons combined. But in the three years before that he had 28½ sacks, or an average of 9½ a season, which is outstanding for an interior rusher and the reason for his big contract in the first place.
At age 28, Wilkerson isn’t young by NFL standards, but he’s just young enough to think that reuniting with a coach who likes him (Pettine was the Jets’ defensive coordinator for Wilkerson’s first two seasons with them) and the incentive of a prove-it contract could get him playing a lot better than he has the last two years.
If he does, the Packers will have rare depth with three bona fide inside rushers.
That would allow Pettine to have two on the field on every passing down while getting valuable rest for the third, so that all three are fresh late in games and late in the season. That had to be a big part of the Packers’ thinking in signing Wilkerson.
While NFL teams always have coveted inside rushers because they have the quickest path to the quarterback, Pettine seems to value them even more than most, something he says he learned from his mentor, Rex Ryan.
“If I’m an offense, it’s a lot easier to handle guys off the edges via formation or chipping or doubles,” Pettine said. “Inside, usually somebody’s getting— one guy, maybe two — are getting one-on-ones. Those guys have to win. If you can be dominant inside, I think that just has a ripple effect throughout your defense when you’re speeding up that quarterback’s clock because you have guys winning inside or at least pushing the pocket.”
Pettine’s take runs counter to conventional thinking that says rushing inside is harder than outside because of the traffic. There are three offensive linemen (two guards and a center) blocking inside against two defensive linemen in a standard rush, whereas tackles are on an island against outside rushers. That’s why 10 sacks for an inside rusher probably is equivalent to 14 or 15 for an outside rusher. It’s just tougher to get through all those bodies.
But it’s hard to double team both inside rushers. And Pettine’s history suggests he does everything he can to force one-on-one matchups inside with liberal doses of interior blitzes.
In Pettine’s four seasons with the Jets (2009-12), he never had an outside rusher with more than eight sacks. But inside linebackers David Harris and Bart Scott combined for 25½ sacks in those four years. In contrast, over the last four seasons the Packers’ inside linebackers combined for only eight sacks (that includes one of Josh Jones’ two sacks last season coming as an inside linebacker).
Pettine’s scheme appears to be all about getting as many one-on-ones up the middle as he can.
“It’s paramount that you have guys that can win inside,” he said.
Of the eight defenses Pettine ran as coordinator or head coach, six finished in the top 10 in yards, but only three were in the top 10 in points. His defensive passer ratings, which is another telling stat, have been excellent. He finished in the top 10 in seven of the eight seasons, including four times in the top three.
But he also had a lot of talent to work with, at least with the Jets and Buffalo Bills (2013).
With the Jets, it started with the game’s best cornerback in Darrelle Revis. Nothing like having a cover guy who can take the opponent’s best receiver out of the game week after week.
In Pettine’s one season in Buffalo, he had four quality pass rushers — two outside (Mario Williams with 13 sacks and Jerry Hughes with 10) and two inside (Kyle Williams with 10 and Marcel Dareus with 7½). Still, you have to credit Pettine with getting big seasons out of them.
Then, in two years as Cleveland’s head coach, Pettine’s talent wasn’t as good, and neither were the results. His best rushers were Paul Kruger (13½ sacks in ’14 and ’15 combined) on the outside and Desmond Bryant (11 sacks total) on the inside.
Judging by the Packers’ offseason, coach Mike McCarthy is counting on his new defensive coordinator to make a difference. To that end, Gutekunst has provided as good an inside rushing corps as Pettine could hope for, though the new coordinator also might have three first- or second-year cornerbacks (Kevin King, Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson) in prominent roles.
While there’s still good reason to question Gutekunst for not moving around in the draft for an outside rusher, we now have a better idea what he was thinking. And while Pettine doesn’t have the talent around him that he had in some other stops, he’s strong in the area he covets most.
Now it’s on him to make it work with a defense built around Daniels, Clark and Wilkerson.