Whether by defensive backs coming off the edge or zone blitzes with lineman fading into coverage, defensive schemes have evolved to create constant pressure on passers, but special are the players who hound quarterbacks on their own.
Using sudden first steps, power or relentlessness, or most likely a combination of the three, an elite pass-rusher can carry a defense to a new stratosphere. Think Clay Matthews in 2010, and his 17 sacks, including the postseason.
Three members of this listing of Green Bay’s top pass-rushers are also in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
10. Bryce Paup (1990-94) – After playing only five games as a rookie, Paup collected all 32.5 of his sacks in his final 59 contests and added three more in the playoffs. He was a relentless battler and Paup could also drop into coverage, posting four interceptions. His 4.5-sack performance vs. Tampa Bay in 1991 is ranked second for a single game in team history. Paup added a safety that afternoon, and it’s a Sunday at Lambeau Field that QB Vinny Testaverde must still think about. Consideration was also given to Sean Jones (1994-96), the only player other than Reggie White to lead the club in sacks during White’s stint with the team, when Jones had 10.5 in 1994.
9. Tony Bennett (1990-93) – Arriving in the same draft class as Paup, Bennett is more of a quick flash than a lasting figure in Packers history, but he was a strong rusher off the edge and produced 36 sacks in four years. From 1991-92, he had 26.5, and in 1992 recorded at least a half-sack in seven straight games to set a team record. Bennett was also particularly adept at forcing fumbles with nine, returning one for a TD. He sat out the first six games of 1993 in a contract dispute, recorded 6.5 sacks in the final 10 contests and signed with Indianapolis as a free agent in 1994.
8. Clay Matthews (2009-10) – Longevity gives way to impact and Matthews is already primed to join the upper echelon of the club’s all-time greats with his pace of 23.5 quarterback drops in just 31 regular-season games. The outside linebacker has also added 4.5 sacks in the postseason. No player in NFL history recorded more sacks in the first 20 games of his career than the 17 Matthews had, and the two-time Pro Bowl pick has also posted three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. For traditionalists, he is above two players who rushed the quarterback a little longer for the Packers, but not as well. With more time, Matthews is expected to climb the list.
7. Aaron Kampman (2002-09) – Fourth in team record books with 54 sacks, Kampman was a steady contributor on the defensive front until 2006 when he exploded for 15.5 sacks, ranking second in the NFL and more than doubling his total from the year before. It started a three-year stretch where the defensive end would make two Pro Bowls and register 37 sacks, ranking third in the NFL over that time. At 6-4, 260, Kampman was an expert technician instead of a mauler, and he recorded three sacks in a game four times.
6. Ezra Johnson (1977-87) – Sacks only became an official statistic in 1982 and Johnson ranks fifth in team history with 41.5 over his last six years with the Packers; however, some of his greatest years are in the dark period that never made the record books. In 1978, unofficially he had 20.5 sacks, including twisting Detroit’s Greg Landry to the turf five times in the opener. Johnson arrived in Green Bay at a scant 240 pounds, but he was quick off the edge and would eventually put on 20 pounds for more of an anchor. In 1983, Johnson recorded a team-high 14.5 QB takedowns, one of six times his total was the club’s best.
5. Tim Harris (1986-90) – Playing prior to the Packers’ revival, Harris was only on one winning team in Green Bay. During his five-year career, he was among the NFL’s most feared pass-rushers, recording 33 sacks in a 32-game stretch from 1988-89. Harris departed with 55 sacks, ranking third in club history. He often faced multiple blockers: In 1989, when Harris finished second in the NFL with 19.5 sacks, his closest teammate had three.
4. Henry Jordan (1959-69) – The Hall of Famer is also from a time in the NFL when defensive stats are largely a mystery, but how he chased quarterbacks around the pocket is well remembered. At below 250 pounds, Jordan relied on quick feet and strong hands in the trenches. The Packers earned the 1967 Western Conference crown after he was unofficially in on four sacks of Rams QB Roman Gabriel at Milwaukee County Stadium in a 28-7 win. Jordan was so dominant, Vince Lombardi said after the contest it was “probably the greatest game I’ve ever seen him play.”
3. Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (2000-08) – The team’s all-time leader with 74.5 sacks, at 250 pounds “KGB” was a jet with a first step so quick he sometimes had blockers just leaving their stances as he burned around the corner. Gbaja-Biamila posted five consecutive years leading the team in sacks and four straight years with double-digit totals, both unmatched achievements for the Packers. Near the end of his career he became a pass-rush specialist rather than every-down player, and in 2007 he and Kampman combined for 21.5 sacks. Gbaja-Biamila had 17 games with more than one sack.
2. Willie Davis (1960-69) – It’s been estimated he collected well over 100 sacks. Davis was as slippery as he was strong as a 240-pound end and a cornerstone of teams that won five championships. In 1966, after helping flush him from the pocket, Davis stripped Johnny Unitas at muddy Memorial Stadium as Green Bay clinched a division title with a 14-10 win, a play known as “The Million Dollar Fumble.” In the first two Super Bowls, Davis relentlessly tracked Kansas City’s Len Dawson and Oakland’s Daryle Lamonica. While never missing a game, the five-time All-Pro also recovered a club-record 21 fumbles. Davis was voted to the Hall of Fame in 1981.
1. Reggie White (1993-98) – Acquired in 1993 in what Sports Illustrated has deemed the top free-agent signing in NFL history, White departed six years later as the club’s all-time sack leader with 68.5, a total later eclipsed by Gbaja-Biamila. White was one of the league’s premier players during his time in Green Bay, earning All-Pro honors each year. He had two or more sacks in 16 games, recorded 13 forced fumbles and deflected 28 passes. At 295, White most often stepped into the chest of blockers and swarmed around them with brute force. He led the Packers in sacks annually, except in 1994, when he was second, and set a record in Super Bowl XXXI with three sacks. In 1998, White retired on the eve of the season, returned the next day, recorded 16 sacks and was voted the NFL defensive player of the year.
Ricky Zeller is a contributing writer for packers.com. He has covered the NFL for several publications.