The Green Bay Packers pass rush under Dom Capers has been a hot-button issue seemingly since the fall of the Roman Empire (which happened right around 2011 if my public school education serves me right).
Each season seems to see the Packers fail to generate any kind of pass rush opposite Clay Matthews. One of the things that stood out during the 2010 Super Bowl run was how much the pass rush from Cullen Jenkins coupled with Clay Matthews helped the defense succeed. After three poor years, Dom Capers seems to have figured things out. The numbers show that the Packers have generated the best pass rush that they have had since Capers became the defensive coordinator in 2009.
The Packers knew going into the off-season in 2014 that they needed help with the pass rush and so Ted Thompson patiently waited and was able to get Julius Peppers late in free agency, a signing that has worked out well for the Packers. The table below shows that despite having the best outside linebacker to work alongside of Clay Matthews that the Packers have had, the sack numbers don’t look all that different than in years past.
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The Packers have had a fairly uneventful season by their sack standards under Capers. At 41 sacks the Packers ranked 10th in the NFL. That puts them with the fourth highest amount of sacks and fourth highest NFL ranking that they have had in Capers’ six seasons with the Packers. Something that does stand out however is that the Packers have been pretty good at generating sacks over the last six season. Five of the six seasons the Packers ranked in the top 11 in the NFL in sacks and twice in the top five.
Sacks alone do not tell the entire story however. There are multiple things that come into play when looking at sacks and at the pass rush in general. Sacks as a whole can be inflated by the number of times a team passes against you. Sacks aren’t everything either, if you are getting sacks but not getting consistent pressure, you’re going to have a tough time as a defense.
Getting to the quarterback and hitting him, as well as forcing him to move around in and out of the pocket play a big part in making a quarterback uncomfortable, which helps force the quarterback to make poor reads and inaccurate throws. Consistent quarterback hits as well as quarterback pressures are every bit as important as sacking the quarterback.
One of the reasons why sack totals are not a great measuring stick is because as you can see from the table below, teams attempt to throw a lot on the Packers, a lot more than those teams usually do.
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More so than anything else, the Packers offense forces teams to throw a lot on the Packers defense to try and catch-up. In 2010 through 2012 teams threw an average of 10 pass attempts per game against the Packers more than they typically would. Peaking at a staggering 48.4 dropbacks per game in 2010, 11.2 more dropbacks than the NFL average. 2009, 2013, and 2014 saw a much more reasonable average of two to three dropbacks more per game against the Packers than the average team.
It is not hard to see how the Packers got a lot of sacks over the last six seasons, teams drop back to throw on them a lot. What is more impressive is just how bad the 2011 pass rush was. The 2011 pass rush had the 5th least amount of sacks in the NFL, despite seeing 763 drop backs.
Looking at pass rush stats as a percentage of opportunities gives a much more accurate depiction of how the pass rush is doing from year to year. Instead of just looking at sacks, the tables below also include quarterback hits, and quarterback hurries to see how often the Packers defense is disrupting the quarterback.
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This season has been the Packers best season in terms of pass rush under Dom Capers. They set new highs for sack percentage (6.8%), QB hurry percentage(27.3%), and tied their previous high for QB hit percentage (9.2%) under Capers. While the sack totals and sack percentage is not extraordinarily high this year, they have been getting to the opponent’s quarterback a ton compared to the previous five seasons. Their QB hit percentage is almost twice as high as it was last season and the frequency in which they hurry the opponent’s quarterback is almost 10 percent higher than it was in 2012. The Packers have also dominated their 2010 pass rush percentages across the board this season.
When looking at a possible reason for the extra success that this team has had at rushing the passer this year, the easy explanation is to point to Julius Peppers, and that would not be a bad choice. Peppers is 2nd on the team in sacks, tied for first on the team in QB hits, and first on the team in QB hurries. Peppers was a great addition to the team and for the first time in six seasons there is a solid counterpart working outside linebacker opposite of Clay Matthews for the entire season.
However while Peppers has been a good addition to the team, he may not be the main catalyst for success in the pass rush. Looking at the percentages in the above table, 2009, 2010 and 2013, 2014 were better years than 2011 and 2012. What did the Packers defense have in 2009, 2010, 2013, and 2014 that they did not have in 2011 or 2012? A good pass rushing defensive end. Cullen Jenkins in 2009 and 2010 and Mike Daniels in 2013 and 2014.
Mike Daniels has been a stud this year and last. Daniels is tied with Julius Peppers for the team lead in QB hits and is first in QB hit percentage. Daniels is also third on the team behind Peppers and Matthews in sacks and hurries this year.
Last season no Packers player hit the quarterback more frequently than Mike Daniels. He was second on the team in sacks and hurries as well as leading the team in QB hits. The impact from Daniels being able to generate a consistent pass rush from the line cannot be denied. This season has been head and shoulders above Jenkins’ pass rush percentages from 2009 and just shy of the season Jenkins had in 2010 in terms of sack percentage and hurry percentage, while having a higher QB hit percentage.
Using the Pass Rush Productivity metric from Pro Football Focus that combines sacks, QB hits, and QB hurries, only J.J. Watt has been a better 3-4 pass rushing defensive end than Mike Daniels over the last two seasons.
The Packers have seen their most productive pass rush this season in any of the six seasons under direction of defensive coordinator Dom Capers. The Packers are no longer dependent on Clay Matthews to carry the load for the pass rush, even though he still has. Peppers, the rotation of Neal and Perry at left outside linebacker, and the great season from Mike Daniels have allowed Clay Matthews to switch to wherever he is needed between outside and inside linebacker.
Since they started rotating Matthews between inside and outside linebacker, the Packers have seen their average rushing yards per carry allowed go down from the fourth worst in the NFL at a pitiful 4.78 yards per carry to the third best in the NFL at 3.43 yards per carry. All the while maintaining their overall pass rush effectiveness.
Finally, I just thought I’d share some of the random interesting stats I noticed while doing this piece:
-A.J. Hawk has by far and away the highest QB hurry percentage when rushing this year at 13 percent. The next highest is Clay Matthews at 7 percent. Under Capers typically there is one very good inside linebacker that is good at forcing hurries, I would assume mostly due to the unexpected nature of them rushing. However the 13 percent for a QB hurry percentage from Hawk this year would be the second highest of any player under Capers.
-Clay Matthews has led the Packers in sacks every season of his career, probably not a surprise as much as it is impressive.
-The man who couldn’t rush standing up, Aaron Kampman, had the highest single season QB hit percentage of anyone under Capers.
-In his first two seasons Nick Perry recorded six sacks and had the highest QB hurry rate of any player on the team, yet he didn’t record a single QB hit. This year he recorded his first, and only, QB hit.
Mike Reuter lives in the Twin Cities and is a graduate of the University of St. Thomas. He is a mobile tech enthusiast, a 19 year Gopher Football season ticket holder and a huge Packers fan. Mike is a writer with AllGreenBayPackers.com and you can follow him on twitter at @uofmike.