For the second time in as many years, Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers will need to get creative in his blitz calls to provide pressure on quarterbacks without Clay Matthews and Nick Perry.
Back in 2012, Capers dealt with a four-game stretch in which Matthews was nursing a hamstring injury and Perry was on season-ending injured reserve with wrist and knee ailments. Almost the exact script is playing out this season, and it will once again require Capers to out-scheme opposing offenses with his pressure packages.
On Sunday, the Packers will be without Matthews, who is again on the sidelines with a thumb injury, and Perry, who broke his foot against the Baltimore Ravens and is now expected to miss a couple of weeks.
Matthews may not be back for another two or three weeks. Perry's timeline is not as set in stone.
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Source: Pro Football Focus
Combined, Matthews and Perry have accounted for six of Green Bay's 17 sacks (35.3 percent), and, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), 24 of the defense's 73 total pressures (32.9). Replacing both will be difficult for Capers, as the edge-rushers in the 3-4 defenses are typically viewed as the centerpieces of the defense. Without the pocket-collapsing pressure from the outside linebackers, the 3-4 defense can become vulnerable in a hurry.
The Packers depth chart says that Mike Neal and Andy Mulumba will take over the two vacated starting spots. Neal has been a pleasant surprise following his position switch from 3-4 defensive end to outside linebacker, and Mulumba has held his own over a handful of snaps despite entering the NFL as an undrafted rookie.
However, Capers likely can't count on the duo to generate consistent edge pressure without the aid of blitzes.
Neal has just 14 pressures over 123 pass-rushing snaps, and Mulumba has been much more of a run defender than pass-rusher (only one pressure over 37 pass-rushing snaps).
A season ago, Capers employed the likes of Erik Walden, Dezman Moses and Frank Zombo to rush the quarterback while Matthews and Perry were unavailable. Fast forward 12 months, and none of the three are still in Green Bay.
With those three at his disposal, however, Capers leaned on voluminous blitzing early on and gradually became more creative in his blitz looks.
Consider that in games against the Arizona Cardinals and Jacksonville Jaguars last season (Matthews missed the second half vs. Arizona and the entire contest vs. Jacksonville), Capers brought five or more rushers on 33 passing snaps. That's a relatively high number for the Packers defensive coordinator over a two-game stretch.
However, Capers' 33 blitzes brought just two sacks and three total pressures. The quarterbacks facing those pressures—Arizona's John Skelton and Jacksonville's Blaine Gabbert—completed a combined 22 of 31 passes for 273 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions against five or more rushers.
Gradually, the blitzes became more creative and refined, and the results showed.
Against the Detroit Lions, Capers brought just 11 total blitzes, many of which were of the overload or cross-fire variety. There was a distinction and timing to the pressures. As a result, the Packers sacked Matthew Stafford five times, including three off blitzes. Green Bay also caused three turnovers.
Capers has obviously taken those lessons learned last season and applied them to 2013.
In his first game without Matthews last Sunday, Capers sent 11 blitzes at Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Many worked exactly to plan. Green Bay recorded five sacks, four of which came off designed blitzes.
Below are two examples of Capers dialing up the correct pressure in the given situation.
Attacking the A-Gap
On the first third down of the game, Capers brought one of his classic pressures.
On the play, the Ravens bunched three receivers to the right and positioned Dallas Clark (87) and Ray Rice (27) to the left side of Flacco. Capers countered with a nickel look (two down linemen, extra defensive back).
Instead of playing coverage, Capers attacked. He dialed up a fire-zone blitz, which typically brings two extra rushers while dropping another into coverage.
Neal, who is lined up to the right but not pictured, is the zone man. He drops and initially takes away Flacco's hot read to the bunch side.
This allows A.J. Hawk and Jamari Lattimore to go to work on the A-gap, or the spaces to each side of the center. The Ravens center (No. 66) hesitates to pick up Hawk, who comes first, and later decides on Lattimore, the second A-gap blitzer. Hawk gets a free run at Flacco and an easy third down sack.
The Packers got another easy sack later in the game using a creative blitz look from Capers.
On this play, Capers won with simple math. Bring more rushers than there are blockers, and someone is going to have a free run at the quarterback. And if disguised correctly, the quarterback won't have an opportunity to shift protection or find a hot read.
Here's how the Packers confused Flacco and the Ravens offensive line pre-snap.
Green Bay has four rushers attacking three blockers. The Ravens do what every offense teaches by blocking the three rushers with the fastest avenue to the quarterback. However, cornerback Micah Hyde is left unblocked off the edge.
Flacco doesn't have a hot read to the right (where the blitz is coming from) and is instead focused on the route tree to his left. Hyde is unseen and sacks Flacco without much trouble.
Expect the Packers to utilize similar blitz concepts Sunday against Brandon Weeden and the Cleveland Browns.
I asked Matt Bowen, who spent six years as a safety in the NFL and now serves as a lead NFL writer for Bleacher Report, about how Capers is likely viewing his current pass rush situation.
While Bowen was clear that every game plan depends on the opponent, he also noted how important it will be for the Packers to get free runners at Weeden Sunday.
"[Weeden] is very slow with his progressions in the pocket and doesn't react well versus pressure," Bowen said. "Even without their two edge-rushers, the Packers can still pressure and use some creative fronts to confuse the Browns' protection count."
Bowen's game plan without Matthews and Perry would be relatively simple.
"I would go after Weeden on early down and distances and then force him to make throws versus coverage on third downs," Bowen said.
The Packers will likely need to get creative in their blitz looks to generate the same types of pressure Matthews and Perry produced on their own. Game plans will change, and the pressure will come in different packages. But Capers has shown an ability to adjust to life without his two best pass-rushers.