In spite of his vitriol for the Packers, Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall might have been onto something on Wednesday when he called defensive coordinator Dom Capers the “player MVP” during the teams’ first meeting this season, a 23-10 Green Bay victory back in Week 2.
Marshall ripped into Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson for perceived slights at his ability, but he gave credit to Capers for rolling safety help to Marshall’s side of the of the field, effectively taking him out of the game.
“Coach Capers did a great job of game-planning us and game-planning me,” Marshall said at a press conference. “I didn’t beat double- or triple-coverage or whatever they were throwing at us.”
Apart from a savvy plan for how the Packers would play their coverage, Capers––along with linebacker Clay Matthews––are deserving of recognition for improving a pass rush that was among the worst in the NFL last season.
Only two teams in the entire NFL had fewer than the 29 sacks the Packers managed to rack up last season. After losing Cullen Jenkins to free agency, the Packers couldn’t find a complement to Matthews’ pass rushing ability.
The Packers’ 29 sacks a year ago is a statistic that looks even worse considering the high amount of times teams dropped back to pass, a league-high 637 times, while in catch-up mode trying to keep pace with Green Bay’s prolific offense of 2011.
Fast forward to 2012 and the Packers still haven’t found any one player capable of replacing Jenkins’ production, but Capers has schemed his way to 35 sacks, sixth-most in the NFL with three games still to go.
Outside of Matthews’ nine sacks in nine games, no one else on the roster has more than three. Instead, it’s been a true team effort: 14 different players have at least one sack this season, a statistic that ranks No. 2 in the NFL (only the Cleveland Browns have more players with at least one sack with 16).
The pressure is coming from every level of the defense, a tribute to Dom Capers figuring out a solution to what was a major weakness of last year’s version of the Packers and a reason they were bounced in the divisional round of the playoffs.
This season the playing time of B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett has been scaled back, which has allowed them to stay fresh and at the same time, gotten defensive linemen who are better suited to rush the passer in suitable down-and-distance situations.
Guys like Mike Daniels, Jerel Worthy and Mike Neal have chipped in two sacks apiece playing primarily in the nickel and dime packages, while C.J. Wilson has added 2.5.
At outside linebacker, the Packers have been able to rotate players opposite Matthews when availability has allowed them to do so. No single player is doing exceedingly well, but the combined production from Erik Walden, Dezman Moses and Nick Perry is eight sacks, which has been more than adequate.
Meanwhile, at inside linebacker, the decision to replace Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith with Brad Jones has turned out to be a welcome development. Relying upon previous experience as an outside linebacker, Jones seems to have a knack for rushing the passer and has teamed up with Hawk and Smith for a collective four sacks from the inside.
Even from the secondary, a couple of well-timed blitzes from Charles Woodson, Morgan Burnett and Davon House have resulted in 4.5 sacks in 2012.
To be sure, the presence of Matthews has helped to take pressure off the rest of the defenders on the team, and his participation on Sunday will be a windfall to a Packers team lacking in pressure without him.
In the first nine games of the season with Matthews in the lineup, the Packers had only one game with zero or one sacks. In the four games without Matthews due to a hamstring injury, the Packers have had three games with zero or one sacks, all of them coming in the past three outings.
Matthews alone had 3.5 sacks in the first Packers-Bears meeting earlier this season, and assuming he’s healthy, could be able to do more damage against a Bears offensive line that’s beat up and hasn’t been very good.
“When you have a good day rushing the passer, it might not equal sacks directly,” Matthews told the media on Wednesday, “but ultimately, if you feel good as a pass rusher, you get into a routine, a rhythm and a groove, and I definitely feel that was the case the first time we played them.
“We’re going to have to break off a little bit of the rust, obviously sitting out a few games, but ultimately, as I continue to say, there shouldn’t be a drop off or I hope there isn’t.”
What’s clear is that the combination of Matthews’ ability and Capers’ schemes and personnel decisions have helped the Packers defensive improve from allowing a league-leading 411.6 yards per game a year ago to 351.8 in 2012, a improvement of nearly 60 fewer yards per game.
The pass rush has been a big part of that progress.