World’s Best Preview: A pressure-packed start for Pettine’s defense

Bill Huber

Last season, the Green Bay Packers’ pass rush was all or nothing. While Green Bay finished a respectable eighth in the league in sacks, it was only 30th in quarterback hits.

This season, the Packers’ pass rush has been all or something. The Packers entered this week’s games tied for 10th in sacks per game. However, while last year’s pass rush was a feast-or-famine deal, it’s been all feast this season with the Packers tied for seventh in quarterback hits, according to the official league stats.

The genesis of the improvement is easy to pinpoint. On March 12, general manager Brian Gutekunst opened the vault to sign free-agent outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith. With that, he released Nick Perry and let Clay Matthews sign with the Rams. With the January addition of outside linebackers coach Mike Smith and the first-round pick used on Rashan Gary in April, Green Bay’s outside linebacker group has gone from liability to game-wrecking, dominating force.

Those moves should vault Gutekunst right into the heart of the conversation for Executive of the Year, because the three Smiths, in particular, have changed the face of the defense and, therefore, the team.

“Gutey did a great job,” Mike Smith said. “Probably one of the best I’ve seen. He’s like a coach that’s in the office. He knows what we need and what type of players we need. He’s found some freakin’ good ones.”

Preston Smith entered the week ranked fifth with 5.5 sacks while Za’Darius Smith is tied for sixth with 5.0 sacks. Matthews and Perry had a combined 5.0 sacks for all of last season. It’s more than the sacks, though. According to Pro Football Focus, the Packers’ outside linebackers have provided 71 total pressures (a combination of sacks, quarterback hits and quarterback hurries). That’s second among edge-rushing groups to Minnesota’s 73. Za’Darius Smith has 30, which is tied for fourth, and Preston Smith has 24, which is tied for 11th.

Last year, the Packers’ outside linebackers had 85 for the entire season, led by Matthews’ 30 and 21 apiece by Kyler Fackrell and Reggie Gilbert. Za’Darius Smith needed five games to equal Matthews and Preston Smith needed five games to surpass Kyler Fackrell and Gilbert.

“What’s great is they all buy in,” Mike Smith said. “There’s never any argument. We’re going to do this, this. When we leave that room, we know exactly what way we’re going to go, how we’re going to attack these tackles or guards. That’s why you get great. That’s how you become effective. You shouldn’t have a bad week affecting the quarterback. If you sit there and say, ‘These guys didn’t get a sack, they must have had a bad week rushing the quarterback.’ We don’t have bad weeks because we’re aggressive, we’re savages, we’re mean. We keep coming. We don’t stop.”

No, they haven’t. With the outside linebackers leading the charge, the Packers have 127 individual pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s a pace for 406 – blowing out of the water the 260 from last season. In fact, dating to 2009 – the first year of the 3-4 defense under then-coordinator Dom Capers – the Packers have reached 300 individual quarterback pressures only once (318 in 2015).

The important number is pressure percentage, since that even outs any disparities in passing attempts. According to data provided courtesy of PFF, Green Bay has applied pressure on 42.6 percent of opponent dropbacks, by far its best rate since the 3-4 change in 2009. For this season, it’s second in the league to Philadelphia’s 44.2 percent.

That relentless pressure was obvious last week. Lost in the shuffle of all the yards Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott threw for was the beating he absorbed. While there’s nothing spectacular about three sacks, the Packers recorded an additional 20 quarterback hits, according to the coaches’ film review. That’s 23 shots on the quarterback, the team’s first time hitting 20 since getting 21 in Week 4 vs. Minnesota in 2015 and its most since collecting 23 vs. Tennessee in Week 16 of 2012. Last year’s season high was 13 against Miami.

While the absence of All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith certainly was a factor, the Packers destroyed an offensive line that had allowed three sacks and a league-low 35 pressures in the first four games, according to PFF. The Packers pressured Prescott 19 times on 53 dropbacks.

Already, by the coaches’ count, the Packers have 64 quarterback hits to go with their 15 sacks. That’s 79 shots on the quarterback, or a pace for 253. Last year, the Packers had 44 sacks and 46 hits for a total of 90. Going back to 2009, Green Bay’s highest total was 186 in 2012.

“It’s tough, especially when you’re playing guys like that and you have to account for them every single play,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “You have to have a plan for chipping them or thumping them, but then you’ve got a guy like Z who can go in and play three-technique and rush the from the three and be very dangerous inside. It’s a tough front and I’m glad we don’t have to go against them every week.”

Pettine’s happy he’s got them, though. As Rodgers said, Za’Darius Smith’s ability to play from the interior has changed the defense because Pettine can add another pure rusher to the defense. Frequently, he’s gone with Kenny Clark and Za’Darius Smith on the interior, with Preston Smith and either Fackrell or Gary on the edge.

“Every week, Mike’s like a kid on Christmas,” Mike Smith said. “He’s smiling. ‘What can we do this week? Where we can put them?’ That’s just what makes this defense great and has been for many years is we have guys like that that can rush inside, outside, they can drop. They can do multiple things in multiple positions. It allows you to do more on defense. It’s tough for an offense to sit there and look, ‘OK, every time Z’s here, he’s doing this.’ Well, that ain’t true. ‘Every time Preston’s here, he’s doing this.’ That’s not true. We do a good job of tying where everybody’s at and making sure we’re not giving any tendencies away like that. It’s a huge part of what we do.”

Not to be neglected is Clark. The 2016 first-round pick went from two-down player to start his career to all-around force. He had five quarterback hits vs. Dallas, by the coaches’ count. According to Pro Football Focus, Clark has 23 total pressures. Jacksonville’s Calais Campbell leads all interior defenders with 25.

Pro Football Focus has a stat called pass-rushing productivity, which measures sacks, hits and hurries per pass-rushing snap. Among edge defenders who have played 20 percent of the passing snaps, Preston Smith ranks ninth, Za’Darius Smith ranks 10th and Fackrell ranks 12th. Among interior defenders, Clark is sixth. That makes Green Bay the only team with four of the top 15 rushers in their position group.

Given the size of Za’Darius Smith and Gary, Pettine could line up all outside linebackers on his front. And that day may come. But Clark’s power adds an extra dimension.

“When you have edge rushers that can rush the quarterback, you can put four or five little guys out there if you want, but are you going to get the push up the middle to push the pocket?” defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery said late last month. “You go back to look at some of the sacks, the center and guards are sitting in the lap of the quarterback. The only place for him to go is out and around because we had everybody collapsing the pocket. It’s nice to have bigs in there that can push the pocket, so when you have edge rushers that can get there, there’s nowhere to escape to.”

Packers combined sacks and hits (coaches’ count)

2009: 37 sacks, 140 hits = 177 (Matthews, 45)

2010: 47 sacks, 125 hits = 172 (Matthews, 54)

2011: 29 sacks, 129 hits = 158 (Matthews, 59)

2012: 47 sacks, 139 hits = 186 (Matthews, 55)

2013: 44 sacks, 108 hits = 152 (Matthews, 33)

2014: 41 sacks, 105 hits = 149 (Matthews, 28)

2015: 43 sacks, 74 hits = 117 (Peppers and Matthews, 18)

2016: 40 sacks, 94 hits = 134 (Matthews, 26)

2017: 37 sacks, 97 hits = 134 (Matthews, 23)

2018: 44 sacks, 46 hits = 90 (Matthews and Clark, 13)

2019 (projected): 48 sacks, 205 hits = 253 (Z. Smith, 74)

Pressure rates (courtesy Bryan Hall of Pro Football Focus)

2009: 33.3 percent (sixth)

2010: 35.3 percent (11th)

2011: 29.3 percent (26th)

2012: 29.8 percent (25th)

2013: 32.6 percent (24th)

2014: 36.8 percent (eighth)

2015: 38.4 percent (sixth)

2016: 34.3 percent (16th)

2017: 32.8 percent (27th)

2018: 36.4 percent (10th)

2019: 42.6 percent (second)

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