Sharing the wealth — and the sacks — on defense, Packers get everyone involved
GREEN BAY — Mike Pettine is not turning the Green Bay Packers’ defense into the pro football equivalent of your kid’s YMCA youth sports team, where everybody gets the same amount of playing time and the parents rotate who brings each week’s postgame snacks and juice boxes.
But the Packers’ first-year defensive coordinator does see the value in getting as many of his guys as he can involved, and the results can be seen in the team’s NFL-leading 31 sacks entering Thursday night’s game against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field.
“Even if it’s just a package of three or four calls for one particular player, I like to get everyone in the room involved. So if they’re up for the game, they have some type of role,” Pettine said earlier this season. “I think that helps in a couple of ways.
“If they’re a starter in a certain package, hey, they’re a starter, they have to prepare like one. I think that helps them get a little more engaged in the game plan than if I’m just sitting in the room and I’m just a backup, and then all of a sudden two plays into a game, they’re thrust into it.
“I just think it’s fun that sometimes we roll those jobs around and you’ll see throughout the year we’ll bring a player in and he might only get two or three plays a game and do something unique for us. But I think that keeps the interest level up and the energy level up in the room.”
It’s also led to production. The Packers’ 31 sacks have come from 15 players, and only four sacks have come from the team’s highest-paid pass rushers, Clay Matthews and Nick Perry.
Of the teams in the top 10 in sacks — including Minnesota, Pittsburgh and Kansas City, which also have 31 sacks this season, tying them for the top spot — the Packers are the only outfit with a team leader with five or fewer sacks. The Vikings’ Dannielle Hunter has 11.5; the Chiefs’ Dee Ford has nine; the Steelers’ T.J. Watt has nine. Chicago, which has 30 sacks, has gotten seven of them from Khalil Mack who missed time with an injury. Arizona, with 29, has gotten 8.5 from Chandler Jones. Denver, with 28, has gotten nine from Von Miller.
“We’ve got some good guys, you know what I’m saying?” said defensive tackle Kenny Clark, who is tied for the team lead in sacks with backup outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell with five. “We’ve got some good guys on our front. Our defensive coordinator calls some plays and we’re getting after guys.
“All of us, we’ve just been hungry and trying to fight for opportunities to get after the passer. I’m not surprised by it, though, honestly. It’s not like a big shock to me because I feel like we’ve got good players and I feel like we’ve got some guys that are hungry for opportunities that are trying to make plays.”
Pettine said the philosophy dates back to his early years as a coordinator, and his belief that the more players are involved in the game plan, the greater the buy-in. At the same time, Pettine said there have been and will be weeks where the plan calls for less rotation and fewer personnel packages.
“There are games where we’ve rolled, in our history and places I’ve been, with very few personnel groupings, and (games where we’ve) gone to the other extreme where we’ve had four, five, six, seven groupings up in a given game,” Pettine said. “It’s all game-plan driven, and it’ll change week-to-week.”
Through nine games, 27 players have played at least one snap on defense, including departed safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (traded to Washington) and Jermaine Whitehead (waived and claimed by Cleveland) and two players on injured reserve (Davon House, Muhammad Wilkerson). Only four players — cornerback-turned-safety Tramon Williams (99.5 percent), inside linebacker Blake Martinez (97.5 percent), Clark (81.6 percent) and safety Kentrell Brice (80.6 percent) — have played more than 80 percent of the defensive snaps. (Clinton-Dix was also above that threshold before being traded.)
Meanwhile, 20 different players have been on the field on defense for at least 100 snaps, and only two defensive players on the current roster — cornerback Will Redmond, who was promoted from the practice squad last week, and safety Ibraheim Campbell, who was claimed on waivers on Nov. 5 — have yet to play on defense.
While the Packers’ sack numbers may have benefited from facing offensively-challenged Buffalo (seven sacks) and a Miami offense without four of its five opening-day offensive linemen (six sacks), the all-for-one, one-for-all mentality is clearly sending more players after the quarterback — even though Pettine’s blitz rate of 26.4 percent is actually lower than departed defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ blitz rate (33.2 percent) last season.
“I think for the most part scheme definitely helps,” Matthews said. “There’s a lot of guys involved in the pass rush. And I’m not just talking about the four-man rush; I’m talking about the pressures, blitzes on third down.”
The Packers enter Thursday night’s game on pace for 55 sacks, which would break the franchise record of 52 set in 2001. (Sacks became an official statistic in 1982.) Also, having 15 players with at least a half-sack is already tied with the 2012 team for the most by a Packers team.
“That’s just part of playing good, team defense,” Pettine said. “I wish we could just line up four and, ‘Hey, let’s go get them.’ But that’s not the case. I think the offenses are too good. I think you need to do some things where you’re bringing some different people and causing some issues in protection.”