Packers Edge Rushers Will Strengthen Defensive Line

Making the case for keeping five edge rushers on the 53-man roster. 

Traditionally, the Packers keep four outside linebackers on the 53-man roster. It makes sense, since there really aren’t enough snaps to go around in a traditional 3-4 defense that typically only utilizes two edge rushers at a time in the base defense. 

That said, the current edge unit heading into training camp has already received some high praise from defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.

Pettine praised both seventh-round draft pick Jonathan Garvin and practice squad holdover Tim Williams directly, including them in the mix behind Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, and Rashan Gary. 

“This is as deep an outside linebackers room as I've been a part of in a long time. It’s a great problem to have,” he said during his most recent media availability. 

Williams, a former third-round draft pick in the 2017 Draft, is a still-developing rusher who’s shown flashes. In college at Alabama, Williams posted 57 total tackles with 30 for a loss, 20 sacks, three passes defensed, and two forced fumbles. With Baltimore, Williams added two sacks and five quarterback hits to his resume. 

Garvin, the team’s final draft selection in the 2020 Draft, brings length and speed to the defense. In his three years at Miami, Garvin totaled 106 tackles with 29 for a loss and 12.5 sacks with five passes defensed and three forced fumbles. He’s also only 20 years old and per Pro Football Focus had a pass rush grade of 88.2, second highest among all ACC defenders (min. 200 snaps). 

Beyond the trio of Za’Darius, Preston, and Gary, solidified at the top of the roster without budging, that would normally only leave one spot left. And going into the 2020 season, I’m not sure that’s the case anymore.  

When Pettine last spoke to the media, he had mentioned wanting to take some of the load off Za’Darius and Preston’s shoulders this season, as they’d played an exceptional amount of snaps in 2019. For context, Za’Darius played a career-high 84% of defensive snaps last season after playing only 67% of snaps in 2018 with Baltimore. Preston also played 84% of snaps in 2019, though he was used to that type of snap count after playing 81% of snaps with Washington in 2018.

While Gary should see a significantly increased share of the load in 2020 after playing only 24% of snaps last season, there are still going to be snaps available with the departure of Kyler Fackrell in free agency (Fackrell played 40% of snaps in 2019). 

What’s more, Pettine discussed the idea of using both Za’Darius and Gary along his defensive line in addition to their traditional edge rushing duties, saying both players are capable of rushing from a tackle spot. 

The versatility that both men bring to the defense could help improve one of the team’s biggest deficiencies. Just, for argument’s sake, let’s imagine Za’Darius, Kenny Clark, and Gary rushing from the interior with Preston and Garvin on the outside. That’s a lot of pressure bearing down on the quarterback, and it adds another layer to Pettine’s defense, with opposing quarterbacks never knowing where the rush is coming from. 

While Za’Darius and Gary will still see a bulk of their snaps on the outside, their ability to move inside or rush with a hand in the dirt benefits the defensive line. Defensive tackle Kenny Clark also played 84% of snaps in 2019, far surpassing his 68% total in 2018. Pettine acknowledged that that was a little high for Clark, too. 

But, the depth chart beyond Clark remains a work in progress, and that’s part of why keeping five outside linebackers make sense. This last season, Pettine mentioned that some of the snaps that traditionally would’ve gone to the defensive linemen stayed with the edge rushers because of the depth in that room. He knew his edge rushers could handle the increased load, and if the edge rushers are a position of strength on the roster, you build around that. 

While young defensive linemen like Kingsley Keke continue to develop, Pettine can work them into the rotation slowly by creating exotic blitz packages that showcase somebody like Gary rushing from over center. 

Per PFF, Za’Darius and Preston combined for 167 total pressures in 2019, with Za’Darius leading the NFL with 93. The Packers need that production to stay on the field, but adding a fifth body to the rotation to keep guys fresh not only helps the edge unit, but also frees up someone like Za’Darius to occasionally rotate inside. 

Many of us expected the Packers to bolster the defensive line either by drafting a player high or by signing a veteran free agent to pair opposite Clark. Perhap the Packers knew what it had in the edge unit already and will use an extra outside linebacker to address the problem that way, instead. 

 

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Maggie Loney is a writer for Cheesehead TV, podcaster for the Pack-A-Day Podcast and Pack's What She Said, and hosts a weekly live show called Happy Hour through Game On Wisconsin. Find her on Twitter at @MaggieJLoney.

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Comments (34)

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Leatherhead's picture

June 16, 2020 at 12:06 pm

It improves the pass rush but makes us smaller against the run.

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splitpea1's picture

June 16, 2020 at 01:31 pm

I hope we're not getting any funny ideas about devaluing traditional D-lineman like we do ILBs. We need a couple of stout bodies that aren't going be easily pushed aside.

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dobber's picture

June 16, 2020 at 02:30 pm

I think it's already been shown that the big-boys just aren't going to be finding their way to GB. Plenty of opportunities over the years to find those guys, but the only DL to be drafted by BG are Keke and Looney. This is a team that's going to have to make it work with smaller, athletic, try-hard types.

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splitpea1's picture

June 16, 2020 at 02:41 pm

"Have to" or "try to"? I don't like it. Why do we always have to be experimenting on this side of the ball?

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Leatherhead's picture

June 16, 2020 at 03:48 pm

I think you’ve got it. I think there is also a plan/hope that teams will have to quit running at us because they’re behind and we’re grinding the clock.

And I do believe that we will have a DLon our 53 who isn’t on the roster yet.

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Stroh's picture

June 16, 2020 at 09:09 pm

Given the fact that the D is based on getting penetration and disrupting the QB, and not taking on 2 blockers or 2 gaps, then the Athletic and smaller is more that fine! The simple fact is they simply need to be more gap conscious. Last year they rarely if ever played w/ gap discipline. Its a one gap scheme, they aren't asked to take up multiple blockers in the way Capers D was required. They want to get in a gap and get in the backfield. It remains to be seen if that will be good enough to consistently stop running teams. But that is the essence of the Pettine/Rex Ryan defense. Personnel, or the lack of it, wasn't the primary issue, it was about not being disciplined to stay in their gaps, while still trying to disrupt the backfield/QB.

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PatrickGB's picture

June 16, 2020 at 02:37 pm

Leather, you make a good point. Yet I wonder how much that “smaller” really means to a run defense? If deadlining the offense line, then sure, it hurts. However, having quick guys filling a gap at the line, then smaller may not be as much of a disadvantage. Pettine’s defense seems to have that philosophy.

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splitpea1's picture

June 16, 2020 at 03:06 pm

That philosophy may be due to necessity.

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Stroh's picture

June 16, 2020 at 09:28 pm

No the Pettine philosophy goes back to Rex Ryan. Its based on getting disruption in the backfield/QB as soon as possible. It at times leaves something to be desired in gap discipline in order to get after the QB and into the backfield, so that is what is needed most to stop the run this year. Gap discipline. Smaller, quicker more athletic fits his scheme, not like Capers when he had 3 DL that were 330 lbs taking on multiple blockers and multiple gaps.

Basically they play the run on the way to the QB. That is the essence of the Pettine Defense!

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Leatherhead's picture

June 16, 2020 at 09:32 pm

I don’t know. It’s complicated. Run defense is all about filling gaps and tackling. It’s a team thing.

I do know that as the game wears on, the big guys stay big but the quick guys lose quickness. I think the decision has been made to defend the pass. It’s the priority.

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Stroh's picture

June 16, 2020 at 10:01 pm

That's correct. Pettine's D is about getting pressure on the QB and playing pass. Its a one gap scheme that wants penetration and disruption on the QB and in the backfield. Gap discipline is what they lacked last year, not better personnel so much. It is about stopping the passing game, more than stopping the run. They basically play the run on the way to the QB.

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TheLegendary52's picture

June 16, 2020 at 12:55 pm

Fantastic work, as always, Maggie! I love your insights into our squad. You write your articles with a level headed, logical, and fair approach. Your fandom is evident, but not blinding. Thanks for your contributions to this community! Oh, and Happy Birthday!

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MaggieLoney's picture

June 16, 2020 at 01:30 pm

This is very kind! I appreciate the birthday wishes! :)

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PatrickGB's picture

June 16, 2020 at 02:50 pm

Oh wow, happy birthday. And thanks Maggie.

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mnbadger's picture

June 16, 2020 at 08:18 pm

Is the legendary 52 Maggie's dad?
I'd be proud too!

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Lare's picture

June 16, 2020 at 01:33 pm

Running teams appreciate it when you devote your defensive resources into rushing the passer.

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PatrickGB's picture

June 16, 2020 at 02:46 pm

It may soon change but running teams are in the minority league wide. I can only think of the Ravens, Niners and Titian’s. And even running teams most often switch back to passing when they fall behind. I think that our team had a serious lack of gap control against the Niners. And I wonder if an additional big fellow would have helped much. He would take up a roster spot for the games in which we did not play a running team. So while I have been on the “Snacks” bandwagon for a while, I have been rethinking my opinion.

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murf7777's picture

June 16, 2020 at 04:41 pm

In addition, both Smiths acknowledged they did a terrible job at setting the edge in SF, so some of the problem lies there.

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splitpea1's picture

June 16, 2020 at 06:06 pm

I would refer you to the first few paragraphs of a May 3 article by Ken Lass, "Post-Draft Packers Position Analysis: Defensive Line." We need the big guys.

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Stroh's picture

June 16, 2020 at 09:49 pm

Well then Ken Lass is wrong! That is not the way the Packer D under Pettine plays Defense! They don't take up multiple blockers/gaps like Caper D. Its one gap and each front 7 player has to play his gap for it to work. The didn't play w/ enough gap discipline last year, but they definitely got pressure on the QB!

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splitpea1's picture

June 16, 2020 at 10:25 pm

The author was just citing statistics for Packers' defensive line ratings and effectiveness in short-yardage situations. Both, I believe, were next-to-last in the league.

Pettine's defense didn't seem to work too well in the NFCCG, did it? QB pressure doesn't matter when the QB hardly ever has to throw.

I don't think 270-pounders are going to be effective. We need players who aren't going to be easily shoved aside, and yes, better gap discipline.

Go ahead, fire away.....

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Stroh's picture

June 16, 2020 at 09:46 pm

Now your getting it! This isn't Capers 2 gap scheme that requires a DL that weight 330+. Its a one gap attacking the backfield/QB above all else. The problems last year are the result of not playing w/ gap discipline while trying to get penetration and get to the QB. Forget the Raji, Pickett, Jolly/Howard Green DL. They don't fit what Pettine wants from the front 7. Guys like Z Smith and Gary that are 270 or so are perfect as Edge Rushers/DL simply because they can play either on the Edge or sometimes at DT and rush inside.

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splitpea1's picture

June 16, 2020 at 10:43 pm

You forgot about Cullen Jenkins--I'm still mad at Ted for not re-signing him, though I should probably get over it. But I liked all those guys you mentioned; they got the job done, and on occasions could get to the QB. Yeah, I know it's not the same defense, but I like whatever works. I'm not beholden to any one philosophy.

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PatrickGB's picture

June 16, 2020 at 02:49 pm

Keke has reportedly been putting on weight. He dropped weight for the combine so his athleticism would stand out but is now working on strength and technique.

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Stroh's picture

June 16, 2020 at 09:56 pm

More strength and technique? Yes... But they don't want him gaining much weight if it means losing quickness and athleticism. The Defense is a one gap scheme so he doesn't need to gain weight and being athletic is advantageous. If he's 290 to 300 that is plenty heavy enough. But they put the premium on quickness and athleticism.

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scoonie_penn's picture

June 16, 2020 at 03:35 pm

JMHO, More PT for Gary = an extended stint on the injury list or (worse) IR.

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NickPerry's picture

June 17, 2020 at 04:29 am

Why? I mean what have you seen to suggest that from Gray? Coming out there was buzz about his shoulder and whether he would require surgery...He didn't. That and he wasn't always an injured player at Michigan so your comment doesn't really have any merit to it scoonie_penn.

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NickPerry's picture

June 17, 2020 at 04:29 am

Why? I mean what have you seen to suggest that from Gray? Coming out there was buzz about his shoulder and whether he would require surgery...He didn't. That and he wasn't always an injured player at Michigan so your comment doesn't really have any merit to it scoonie_penn.

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Ferrari-Driver's picture

June 16, 2020 at 05:40 pm

Nice job on the article. Even with Clark who is a difference maker, calling our defensive line pedestrian would be a compliment. I view Adams as a long shot to be on the opening day roster and I too would expect to see the Packers carry 5 outside LB's.

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nostradanus's picture

June 16, 2020 at 07:08 pm

Congratulations Maggie!

You just blew old Nostradanus mind with an extraordinary, well thought out and well researched plan! You have totally sold me on this plan!

The piece you just put out is a good example of sports journalism, not blind opinion that we see too much of.

Bravo, well done indeed!

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WisconsinStrong's picture

June 16, 2020 at 08:08 pm

Maggie, this is another example of why I always look forward to your articles. I think the five OLB picture is a compelling one--I'd love to see how we could mix things up at the line of scrimmage. Incidentally, the work you put into your analyses, which are always based on data and clear-sighted logic, is evident and greatly appreciated. Go Pack Go!

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mnbadger's picture

June 16, 2020 at 08:20 pm

Not a bad plan, if the bottom three can all play ST's well.

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Leatherhead's picture

June 16, 2020 at 10:09 pm

Doing a little research......last year, all 12 playoff teams were in the top 17 for fewest rushing attempts against. Packers were 14th with 411; SF was 9th with 401. Baltimore was 1st with 340.

Maybe teams fall behind and stop their own running game by passing to try to catch up. In which case, you’ll spend your money on pass defenders, not run pluggers.

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Houndog's picture

June 18, 2020 at 09:24 am

If they continue to overwork Kenny Clark they might as well get prepared to seeing him in a different uniform.
I'm not confident that the aforementioned trio will handle the outside if the Smiths are used inside. We've seen nothing from Gary and a couple rookies are just that, rookies, with most likely with a short and/or somewhat limited training camp.
Fixing the "Run D" is what the early draft should have been for.

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