The statistical anomaly is that the Packers and Cardinals defenses enter Sunday’s matchup tied for the NFL lead in sacks, with 26 apiece.
The strategic anomaly is that both offenses are plenty familiar with the Pittsburgh-rooted 3-4 defensive scheme and the pressure looks generated from it. Defensive coordinators Dom Capers and Ray Horton come from different Steelers eras, but their defensive foundations are still similar.
In other words, no two offenses should be more mentally prepared to handle the opposing, league-leading sack attacks than these two. Handling them physically, of course, is another matter.
“A lot of 3-4 teams like to bring a lot of different looks pressure-wise, and we’ve certainly had a lot of practice throughout the offseason going against our defense,” Packers left guard T.J. Lang said. “I think our defense is one of the more exotic teams with their blitzes, so I think that’s something we can fall back on. We’ve had some experience blocking that type of stuff.”
So do the Cardinals, but there are different issues facing both teams.
For Arizona, it’s an offensive line that hasn’t adequately replaced left tackle Levi Brown, who was lost for the season to a triceps injury suffered in training camp. Brown’s replacement, journeyman D’Anthony Batiste, is on his fifth team and had just four career starts coming into 2012, all with Atlanta five years ago. Meanwhile, the right tackle is rookie Bobby Massie, a fourth-round draft pick.
That lack of experience at the two most important pass-blocking positions has contributed to a league-high 39 sacks allowed. Three times this season, the unit has allowed seven or more in a single game.
The Packers have their own sack issues, with their 28 allowed the second-highest total in the league. Nearly half of those, however, came in Weeks 2 and 3 against Chicago (five) and Seattle (eight), and the Packers haven’t allowed quarterback Aaron Rodgers to be sacked more than three times in a game during their current three-game winning streak.
Of utmost concern to the Packers this week is the sheer volume of pressure packages the Cardinals employ and the variety rushers who have proven they can get to the quarterback.
Mike McCarthy said this week the Packers’ film study indicates the Cardinals bring more than the standard four rushers more than one-third of the time in normal down-and-distance, and up to two-thirds of the time in some situations. Also, four Arizona players have at least three sacks on the season compared to just one player for Green Bay, outside linebacker Clay Matthews with nine (pictured, left), and the Cardinals' leader is a major surprise for a 3-4 scheme.
It’s inside linebacker Daryl Washington (pictured, right), with eight sacks, good for third in the league. It’s common for 3-4 teams to run what’s called a “cross dog” blitz, where the two inside linebackers criss-cross as they attack the middle, but Washington’s numbers suggest the Cardinals execute it better than anyone.
For comparison’s sake, since Capers brought the 3-4 to Green Bay in 2009, the most sacks in one season by an inside linebacker is five, by Desmond Bishop last year. Washington is on pace for 16.
“It can create a lot of trouble for offenses if everybody’s not on the same page,” said Lang, who will be one of three interior linemen charged with sorting out Arizona’s “cross dogs.”
“That’s something we’ve been studying hard. It’s kind of unheard of for an inside linebacker to have eight sacks through eight games. Communication is going to be the most important thing, making sure there are no free runners at Aaron.” Additional coverage - Nov. 1