“A lot” of pass rush options for Packers but success starts with slowing the run

PHILADELPHIA, PA - NOVEMBER 27: T.J. Slaton #93 of the Green Bay Packers reacts to a play against the Philadelphia Eagles during the first half at Lincoln Financial Field on November 27, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - NOVEMBER 27: T.J. Slaton #93 of the Green Bay Packers reacts to a play against the Philadelphia Eagles during the first half at Lincoln Financial Field on November 27, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images) /

In a young interior defensive line room, the Green Bay Packers believe that they have plenty of pass rush options, but there are some unknowns when it comes to stopping the run.

Outside of Kenny Clark, the next most experienced player on the roster is TJ Slaton, with fewer than 600 career snaps in two seasons. Devonte Wyatt has less than 250, and no one else on the roster has a snap in the NFL, according to PFF.

"“A couple of those guys are going to have to take some quick steps and get up to speed in a hurry. We’ve got a lot of pass rush potential with that group, but obviously, it all starts with stopping the run.”"

In terms of getting after the quarterback, in addition to Clark, the Packers have Wyatt, who recorded five pressures, including two sacks in Green Bay’s final four games. This offseason, Clark said that Wyatt has the tools to be a great pass rusher as long as he keeps developing. Rookies Colby Wooden and Karl Brooks both possess the versatility to line up anywhere along the defensive front, along with being two players that Brian Gutekunst said have an “extensive skill set” to rush the passer. There is also Lukas Van Ness, who we could see lining up inside in pass rushing downs as well.

Of course, getting after the quarterback is important. When there is pressure, the entire defense benefits and it can often lead to turnover opportunities. However, as Gutekunst alluded to, success for the Packers’ defensive unit this season starts with being better against the run.

This is a run defense unit that ranked 28th in yards per carry allowed, giving up 5.0 yards per attempt and 31st in run defense DVOA. When an offense can find early down success on the ground, it puts them ahead of the sticks, the defense on its heels, and really opens up the playbook for them when facing second and third-and-short situations.

On the flip side, one key reason behind the defense’s late-season success was that the front seven was better against the run. This then puts the offense in predictable passing situations, allowing the pass rush to pin its ears back and the secondary to play more aggressively. As a group, Green Bay’s defense ranked eighth in third down conversion rate, in part because they were very good when offenses faced third and longs. The issue, however, was that they faced the fewest third downs per game, with offenses frequently able to pick up a first down before then.

While there may be a lot of pass-rush potential with this group, there are many unknowns regarding how this group will hold up against the run. Clark would praise Wyatt for his pass rush presence but also added that the “biggest thing” he has to do is refine his run defense technique. As rookies, relying heavily on Wooden and Brooks will come with its ups and downs. As run game coordinator Jerry Montgomery said, the Packers have to be prepared to “weather the storm” that comes with young players.

The anchors of this defensive unit will be Clark and Wyatt, along with Slaton in the middle. However, with the defensive line being a heavily rotated position, if Clark and Wyatt are playing every run defense snap, that in turn means that they can’t play every pass rush snap. This won’t be the case as we will see each player utilized in each capacity, but that then requires Wooden, Brooks, or whomever else to fill in on early downs.

"“I think TJ made some great strides last year,” said Gutekunst. “I’m excited for what he can do. Obviously, Kenny is going to anchor that thing and Devonte (Wyatt). So those are the three guys that we are going to count on the most, and then a couple young guys that have done a really good job so far, but there is a long ways to go, we haven’t had a practice in pads yet.”"

During offseason programs, we got a quick glimpse into potential defensive front rotations. Of course, it was Clark, Slaton, and Wyatt when in their base 3-4 defense, but I also saw Wooden in for Clark on some early down scenarios. When in nickel, it was Clark and Slaton on early downs.

Also competing for a roster spot and potentially playing time is Jonathan Ford and Chris Slayton. Ford, a 2022 seventh-round draft pick, spent last season on the 53-man roster but was a healthy scratch on Sundays. At 6’5″ – 338 pounds, he could be a secondary option behind Slaton for those run-stuffing snaps in the middle.

Slayton, meanwhile, was someone that Gutekunst brought up specifically by name during Tuesday’s press conference. Slayton was able to make some noise last preseason, recording five pressures in those three games. However, with the number of pass rush options that the Packers have, if he or Ford is going to stand out, their play against the run can be a great differentiator.

Jordan Love and the Packers’ young pass catchers are commanding a lot of the attention, but this is also a young and inexperienced interior defensive line room that Green Bay has as well. The potential is exciting, but that is coupled with quite a few question marks as well. Another year of sub-par run defense is going to create additional challenges that the rest of the unit will have to try and overcome.

"“We will see how it goes,” said Gutekunst, “but we are counting on a lot of young guys this year, and that’s exciting, but it’s a little bit anxious at times too. But we will see how it goes. We have a long time before that first game, but it comes fast.”"