Defending the pass is a strength of the Green Bay Packers defense, and the pass rush could get even stronger this season.
Given how much of an importance head coach Mike McCarthy placed on upgrading the Green Bay Packers pass rush this offseason, it would be easy to forget the unit was tied for seventh in sacks last season with 43.
One of the major reasons to find an upgrade was a combination of Mike Neal’s departure in free agency and Julius Peppers’ age. Peppers, at 36-years-old, will be expected to see a reduction in his snap counts, but his ability to hold back the hands of time is one of the exciting factors of the Packers’ rush this year.
Peppers accounted for a team-high 10.5 sacks in 2015, and while it’s perhaps unrealistic to expect him to replicate these numbers, less could be more for the future Hall of Famer. Assuming his snap count is reduced, Peppers’ role could be more of an impact player who rotates in and out of the lineup. Despite his age, he showed enough last season to believe he has enough in the tank for another strong season.
Clay Matthews’ move back to outside linebacker will depend largely on how quickly rookie Blake Martinez adjusts to life in the NFL. What we’ll likely see is Matthews split time between outside and inside linebacker early on. Matthews is a versatile chess piece Dom Capers can move around, but the Packers have made it clear they want their star player on defense to do more of what he does best, and there’s terrorize quarterbacks.
Behind the two headline acts, the Packers have third-round draft choice Kyler Fackrell. The 6-foot-5, 245-pounder has plenty of exciting traits, and Michelle Bruton of Cheesehead TV believes he can go onto earn Pro Bowl nods in Green Bay.
"“While he has the burst and quickness necessary to get into the backfield and disrupt the quarterback, he also has the ability to cover in space. It may not inflate his numbers, but it makes him a crucial piece on the field. “"
Fackrell’s size is exciting, and his ability to play on all three downs. If he can make some noise as a pass rusher in his first year, the Packers defense would have another talented piece to get creative with. After all, he is pencilled into replace a departing Mike Neal.
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Then come a couple of elephants. Datone Jones is expected to transition to an “elephant” rusher in 2016, splitting time between defensive end and outside linebacker. Nick Perry has also been utilized in this role.
Perry was handed a one-year “prove it” deal by the Packers. When healthy, he’s flashed potential as a pass rusher, although staying on the field has been a consistent issue throughout his career. He posted just 3.5 sacks in the regular season last term, but dominated in the playoffs with 3.5 more sacks in just two games. If he can perform anywhere near the level he did in January — particularly in the wild-card win over Washington — Perry will be in line for a longer term deal next year.
He’s been plagued with injuries since arriving in 2012, but as they say, you’re only injury prone until you’re not.
Jayrone Elliott completes the outside linebacker puzzle. Elliott was an undrafted free agent in 2014 and made significant strides last season, posting three sacks. This will be a key third year for Elliott who aims to earn more snaps on defense.
Providing this unit stays healthy, the Packers should have enough talent to create some more consistent pressure off the edge in 2016. Of course, pass rush isn’t limited to the outside backers. Mike Daniels can create a number of problems for quarterbacks from his three-technique position, and rookie defensive lineman Kenny Clark also has some interior rush potential.
Maybe we’ll see Matthews blitz from inside positions with Peppers and Fackrell coming off the edge. The versatility of this unit is a strength.
The Packers were one of the league’s better pass-rushing units in 2015 and it led to a strong defensive performance. With the moves made this spring, they are positioned to build on it in 2016.