GREEN BAY, Wis. -- He did not use his now familiar "big letters" refrain – the one that came with his promise last year of a better running game and an improved defense this year – but Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy thinks his team's pass rush will be better this year, too.
"We're a better pass rush team today than we've been in a long time," McCarthy said Monday. "It's a tribute to our players. Some of the things we've changed schematically, we've worked at it a lot more, we've done a lot more group work in the pass rush area, both in protection and the defensive pass rush. And I think we saw the benefits in the preseason."
The sack numbers from last season might suggest the Packers bothered opposing quarterbacks plenty. They ranked sixth in the NFL in sacks per passing attempt at rate of 8.2 percent.
But that number dropped significantly when defensive coordinator Dom Capers did not blitz. With a four-man rush, the Packers' sack percentage dropped to 6.0 percent, which was a middling 16th in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
There's more to a pass rush than just sacks, which is something coaches will usually say when their team isn't getting them. But it's true, so just because the Packers put up decent sack totals doesn't mean the pressure was enough. Putting quarterbacks under duress forces them to make bad decisions with the ball, and in that regard the Packers' lack of a consistent pass rush might have factored in their lack of takeaways. They picked off only 11 passes last season, their fewest since 2005 and 20 fewer than they had in 2011.
"I think it was good sometimes and, other times we needed to improve," Capers said of his pass rush in 2013. "I'm looking forward to getting our combination of guys on the field this year because I think we've got some guys who can win one-on-one with the pass rush. Really, that's what you need in this league: You need guys, when they're one-on-one, that they can win their share of the battles. I feel like we have guys that have the potential to do that."
And that's why the Packers gave Julius Peppers a $7.5 million signing bonus this offseason to come to Green Bay. With Peppers and Clay Matthews rushing from opposite sides, Capers might be able to generate more pressure from his four-man rushes and therefore leave more players in coverage.
"Adding someone of Peppers' caliber to pass rush is only going to demand attention from the offense as well as allow him to get after the quarterback," said Matthews, who had 7.5 sacks in just 11 games last season.
Peppers wasn't into making any bold statements about the Packers' pass rush, at least not as bold as his head coach.
"My opinion is we've got a group of guys that can get after the quarterback," Peppers said. "And we just have to take what we do in practice and apply it to the games."