By Chris Havel
Special to Event USA
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Mike Pettine was hired to fix the defense.
Former Browns’ head coach brings impressive track record to Green Bay
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That means closing the sizable gap between Green Bay’s defense and the fast and furious playoff-caliber units on display thus far throughout the post-season.
It also means closing the gap between the Packers’ veterans and the less experienced players.
In a league where injuries are the cost of doing business young players are going to be forced into key roles sooner than later.
What matters is how they react when pressed into duty. Frankly, they weren’t nearly good enough in 2017.
Pettine, who joins the Packers with an impressive resume, faces a significant challenge in terms of overhauling the defense.
The Packers’ new defensive coordinator inherits a unit that was ravaged by injuries and opponents alike.
The Packers ranked 22nd in total defense and pass defense in 2017, not nearly good enough for head coach Mike McCarthy. So after nine seasons with Dom Capers, including a Super Bowl win in 2010, McCarthy pulled the plug.
Neither the move nor the new defensive coordinator was a surprise.
McCarthy’s hire of Pettine appears to be a major step in the right direction. Pettine, who has head coach experience, brings a track record of success to Green Bay.
In five seasons as a coordinator, Pettine’s units all ranked among the NFL’s top 10. In four seasons with the Jets, head coach Rex Ryan and Pettine combined to lead a defense that ranked first, third, fifth and eighth. Pettine left the Jets to become Buffalo’s defensive coordinator in 2013 and led a unit that ranked 10th.
Ryan, now an ESPN analyst, spoke glowingly about Pettine during an interview last week.
“He’ll be the best coordinator in the league; that’s how good he is,” Ryan told ESPN. “I think the big thing is – the fan base ought to be super excited about him because this is a good get. There (are) other names out there or whatever, but this is the best coach out there that they could’ve got.”
Two key questions will be answered this season.
The first is what does Pettine bring to the position?
The second is what does he inherit?
Pettine’s experience as a head coach is invaluable. It should allow McCarthy to focus on the offense – in particular play calling – while his new defensive coordinator runs the show.
The Packers’ defense has some talented players, but it never hit its groove as a unit working together. There were too many missed assignments, too many miscommunications and way too many missed tackles.
Pettine, who brings a no-nonsense approach, isn’t going to tolerate anything less than his players’ best.
Clearly, the Packers’ defenders know they have to play better in 2018 if Green Bay is going to be a factor in the post-season.
That means jobs will be up for grabs with few players “locked” into starting roles.
Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry and Mike Daniels represent a strong starting point. Whether the Packers play a 3-4 or a 4-3 is almost irrelevant to Pettine. He believes in being versatile and having the ability to play multiple fronts within an attacking style.
It’s similar to what the Philadelphia Eagles do under coordinator Jim Schwartz, except the Packers don’t have the personnel, at least not yet.
Blake Martinez blossomed in his second season and is another player to build around. Vince Biegel and Kyler Fackrell need to step up and contribute.
The future seems uncertain for Clay Matthews, although I would be mildly surprised if the Packers ask him to take a pay cut. If he declines the Packers might move on.
Nick Perry is a talented pass rusher, but his availability seems constantly in question. He has had to endure one injury after another and 2018 is a pivotal season. Will he be the 11-sack player from two years ago? Or is he merely a guy?
The secondary also possesses talent, but its lack of cohesiveness proved to be a detriment. Too many players were out of position to make plays, forcing Capers to scale back his defense.
That left the Packers’ defense as helpless as a vanilla ice cream cone on a 90-degree day. More often than not, the Packers’ defense melted in the clutch.
Pettine, who certainly looks the part, must decide which players are the core guys and who isn’t going to be back.
Ryan told ESPN that Pettine’s scheme isn’t too complicated and in fact will be user friendly to the young players.
“He’s not one of those guys who is going to play one or two fronts and three coverages,” Ryan said. “This guy is going to give you the gamut. We have a philosophy, and Mike has it, it’s a ‘KILL’ philosophy – keep it likeable and learnable – and that’s what we do, and that team is going to play fast and physical, and I can’t wait to watch them.”
The Packers’ fans are right there with Ryan.
It was impossible to watch the Vikings, Eagles and Jaguars play defense without feeling envious. Those teams get after the opposing offense on every down, and they come in waves.
They play fast sideline-to-sideline, they get after the quarterback and they tackle as a group with a vengeance.
Perhaps the Packers’ defense will play like that this season.
One can only hope.