Pass rushers putting little pressure on QBs

The coaches and defensive coordinators in the NFC North all have the same need -- improving their pass rush.

Updated: June 3, 2004, 11:18 AM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

So you think it's just coincidence that all four franchises in the NFC North will go to training camp next month with defensive coordinators other than the ones with whom they opened last season? You think that mere happenstance, or perhaps just serendipity, entered into the wholesale switcheroo at that key staff position?

Think again.

The en masse makeover, with new coordinator faces in all four NFC North places, certainly was justifiable given the results of the last few seasons. What was once dubbed the "Black and Blue Division" has recently featured four teams that collectively ran up a white flag, it seems, when it came to playing big-time defense.

You pound on the quarterback enough times and you'll create some havoc. That's what we have to do around here.
Bears DE Alex Brown
"You think of that division, at least historically, and you always think 'defense' first," noted one head coach from another NFC division. "But that hasn't been the case recently. I mean, no one was afraid of those defenses. There's been a lot of slippage lately. The (coordinators) who were (ousted), hey, they're all good coaches and good guys. But it definitely was time for a change."

And change certainly has been enacted, not just by importing new defensive bosses, but also by stirring things schematically. The four new coordinators -- Ron Rivera (Chicago), Dick Jauron (Detroit), Bob Slowik (Green Bay) and Ted Cottrell (Minnesota) -- aren't the kinds of coaches who will stick to the status quo of divisional woe.

Of the quartet, only Rivera, who played linebacker for the Bears in the mid-'80s and early-'90s, does not possess prior coordinator experience. Jauron, head coach in Chicago the past five seasons, previously served as coordinator in Jacksonville for three years. Slowik was the Bears' coordinator during the tenure of Dave Wannstedt as head coach. Cottrell, well, he has no real coaching ties to Chicago, but is a veteran coordinator who got bumped by the New York Jets despite solid results there.

Maybe all the roots to the Chicago coaching tree are appropriate, since the Bears of 2003 represent a good example of what ails the entire NFC North, a division where three of the four franchises finished statistically in the bottom half of the league defensively last year. With a No. 14 ranking, Chicago played well enough at times, but lacked consistency and certainly lacked a pass rush, finishing the year with only 18 sacks.

That last element, the absence of a pass rush, has been epidemic in the NFC North for at least the last five seasons. Historically, the division has been known for stuffing the run and, no doubt, the four new coordinators will construct every scheme around the need to stop the ground game first. But in today's game, a defense better be able to pressure the pocket, and to force turnovers.

And, let's face it, outside of Green Bay end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, the division has no legitimate outside pass rush threats. It's fitting that the end dubbed "KGB" performs in the NFC North, since it's as if the former Russian secret police force descended on the division in the middle of the night and made off with all the "edge" rushers. For sure, this is a division of sad sacks, more literally than figuratively.

Last season, the Vikings, with 37 sacks, were the lone division franchise above the league average of 34.1 sacks. In the last five years, Green Bay has averaged 39.4 sacks, and is the only NFC North team that topped the league norm of 37.9 sacks for that miserable half-decade stretch. Only the Packers since 1999 have posted consecutive seasons, in their case 2001 and 2002, in which they notched at least 40 sacks.

You want more? OK, we've got it. Once you get past Gbaja-Biamila, who has totaled 35½ sacks the past three seasons, the only other lineman in the division who has notched double-digit sacks at least twice in his career is Robert Porcher of the Lions. And the 12-year veteran, who will be 35 years old when Detroit opens camp, is in the twilight of what has been an exemplary career.

Oh, yeah, Porcher did tie for the team lead in sacks in 2003. But his 4½ sacks were not exactly memorable. For the Bears, second-year pro Alex Brown had the high-water mark on the team, with only 5½ sacks. The Vikings may have uncovered a potential double-digit sacker in Kevin Williams, as their first-round pick notched 10½ sacks. But it took a late-season flurry by the rookie to reach the double-digit benchmark and Williams clearly is not a pure, upfield pass rusher.

"I don't think sacks always tell the whole story," suggested Cottrell, who isn't regarded as a wild-man schemer. "Then again, you never want the quarterback to get too comfortable on you, right? So you have to at least get pressure and rattle the guy. And usually that will get you some turnovers."

Notable is that, with the exception of Bears rookie head coach Lovie Smith, the other three sideline bosses in the NFC North are men with largely offensive backgrounds. So it will principally fall on the new coordinators, some of whom have been afforded plenty of autonomy, to enact a pass rush turnaround.

Kenechi Udeze
Udeze
Talking about percolating more pressure and doing it, of course, are hardly the same thing. Of the teams in the division, only Minnesota, which used its first choice on former Southern Cal end Kenechi Udeze, seems to have drafted to fill the rush need. Chicago went heavier at tackle than end. The Packers, so desperate for pass-rush help that they continue to employ end Jamal Reynolds despite the fact he seems a certified first-round bust, bolstered the cornerback position. The Lions again veered toward offense.

It would appear that, if pass-rush improvement is to be wrought in the division, it will have to come from fresher schemes and from younger players elevating their games. Youngsters like Brown of the Bears and the Lions' James Hall certainly possess double-digit sack potential, but have to more consistently get to the quarterback.

"You pound on the quarterback enough times," Brown agreed, "and you'll create some havoc. That's what we have to do around here."

And around the rest of the division as well.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

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