The Packers with their 3-4 front rank first in the NFL with 13 sacks, while the Lions with their 4-3 are tied for second in the league with 11 sacks. Pressuring passers has served as the calling card of both defenses thus far, and Sunday’s NFC North battle at Lambeau Field very well could come down to which team’s pass rushers have the better day.
Like most 3-4 teams, the Packers are getting the majority of their sacks from the outside linebackers. Pro Bowler Clay Matthews leads the NFL with six, despite getting shut out last Monday in Chicago, while the new starter opposite Matthews, rookie Frank Zombo, has added a pair. Defensive end Cullen Jenkins, who occasionally rushes from an outside linebacker spot, or from a two-point stance, has three of the other five.
The 13 sacks is tied for the second-most in team history through three games (also 1966, 1977), just two behind the 15 sacks the Packers had in 2001 through three contests. This year, they’re on pace to post the most sacks in Head Coach Mike McCarthy’s tenure, which was 46 in his first season of 2006.
The focal point of course is Matthews, who attracted so much attention after back-to-back three-sack games to start the season that there were some snaps on Monday night that showed three Bears players mirroring him or at least shaded his direction.
Much of the Packers’ pass rush so far this season has been predicated on moving Matthews around to try to get him in a favorable matchup, preferably one-on-one against a single blocker. If opposing offenses react, like the Bears did, by providing a lot of extra help, then it’s up to other defenders to win their one-on-one battles.
“Honestly, I expect every rush that I have in some way there’s going to be some help,” Matthews said. “If I don’t expect that, I’m going to get caught off-guard. So if I see a back, if I see a tight end, I’m thinking they’re going to be blocking me. If they don’t, with where I’m at as a pass rusher, I feel like I should win.”
Even though Matthews was held sackless for the first time this season, the pass rush was still effective on Monday night. The Packers recorded three sacks – from Zombo, Jenkins and cornerback Tramon Williams on a blitz – and pressured Cutler numerous other times. Zombo had another big hit that unfortunately drew a flag for contact to the quarterback’s head, wiping out an interception by linebacker Nick Barnett, but it was an indication that the pressure and potential for big plays doesn’t always have to come from Matthews.
“It’s definitely a team game,” Matthews said. “It’s not just me personally trying to get sacks and what not. I think we did all right as a defense, as far as putting pressure on (Cutler) and making him throw errant passes and what not. I think we did our job, and if that means me getting double- and triple-teamed, other people are freed up, and I think we took advantage of that.”
Meanwhile, the Lions are essentially building their 4-3 scheme around a stout group of down linemen who have changed what people think of Detroit’s defense.
This past offseason, the Lions drafted Nebraska’s defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh with the No. 2 overall pick, traded for former Packers defensive tackle Corey Williams, and signed veteran defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch as a free agent. Developing third-year pro Cliff Avril is the other starting end.
Behind them, defensive ends Turk McBride and Lawrence Jackson along with defensive tackle Sammie Hill are also productive members of the rotation up front. Perhaps most impressive is that six of the seven linemen have at least one sack already this season, with Suh and McBride leading the way with two apiece.
“They’ve got talent across the board, and I think even the backups show a lot of promise too,” Packers guard Daryn Colledge said. “So we’re going to have our hands full. It’s going to be another tough game. It’s a division game, which ramps it up even more.”
All told, that group has accounted for nine of Detroit’s 11 sacks – 10 if you count a credited “team” sack last week of Minnesota’s Brett Favre as being primarily the work of the linemen. That’s where the sack production is supposed to come from in a 4-3, and Detroit’s linemen are holding up their end of the bargain.
“You want to be strong up front, you want to be able to pressure with four and not have to blitz, be able to blitz on your own terms,” Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz said. “We’ve had some good sack numbers in the first three weeks of the season. We can even be better. I think that we’ve got some pretty good pieces there, and we haven’t played our best up front yet.”
For comparison’s sake, it’s interesting to note that the Lions and Packers have faced two of the same quarterbacks already this season, and Detroit has compiled more sacks against each. The Lions sacked Chicago’s Cutler four times in the opener to the Packers’ three on Monday, and they tallied five sacks against Philadelphia’s Michael Vick to the Packers’ three, though to be fair Vick only played one half against Green Bay in Week 1.
The Lions’ 11 sacks have them on pace for possibly their best season in that category in some time. Detroit hasn’t posted 40 sacks in a season over the past decade, with more than 31 just once in the past five years.
The way Detroit’s defensive line is playing, it’s changing the way opposing teams have to design their offensive game plans, and that was the whole idea in revamping that front four.
“The defensive line as a whole, I think we want to be that group and I think we work to be that group every day in practice, within games, (to) be that game-changing group,” Suh said. “We want to be that consistent backbone that you can always rely on.”
Additional coverage – Sept. 29