Packers’ defense gets Pettine to run show

By Chris Havel
Special to Event USA

Here’s a position-by-position analysis of Green Bay’s defense going into camp

GREEN BAY, Wis. –     Mike Pettine embraces challenges and believes in results rather than excuses.

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He also is a proven builder of top-notch NFL defenses.
If that doesn’t make him an excellent choice as the Packers’ new defensive coordinator I’m not sure what does. Now comes the difficult part: Putting it all together.
That begins in earnest Thursday when the Packers take to Ray Nitschke Field for the start of training camp.
The Packers’ defense undeniably was among the NFL’s worst last season. It ranked 26th in points allowed (24 per game), 28th on third down (42.8 percent) and 31st in red zone (65.2 percent).
Opposing quarterbacks combined for a 102 passer rating. Essentially, Dom Capers’ final defense transformed every opposing quarterback into a Pro Bowl signal caller.
So how does Pettine fix it?
Here’s a defensive overview followed by a position-by-position analysis as the Packers kick off training camp.
** DEFENSE (overview)
The influx of personnel gives the Packers’ defense a running start going into the season.
Green Bay’s defense ranked fifth in the league through four weeks, but when quarterback Aaron Rodgers was injured on Oct. 15 the Packers’ defense couldn’t carry the load.
They were too young in the secondary, and too ineffective in pass rush. Furthermore, injuries to Davon House, Morgan Burnett and others left the secondary in tatters.
Frankly, the Packers’ defense didn’t have the horses to run the race.
New GM Brian Gutekunst, along with head coach Mike McCarthy, vowed not to let that happen again.
They added Tramon Williams and brought back House. Then they hit defense hard in the NFL draft and capped it off by signing free agent defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson.
The Packers have brought in help at every level of the defense, beginning up front.
** Defensive line
Wilkerson is a former double-digit sack guy who’s trying to recapture his form under Pettine, his former coordinator.
Wilkerson, along with Kenny Clark, Mike Daniels, Dean Lowry and Montravius Adams, appear to give Green Bay one of the league’s better defensive lines.
Clark, entering his third year, was a beast in ‘17.
The 2016 first-round pick racked up 78 tackles and 4.5 sacks. I loved him when they drafted him. I like him even more now. Clark is a defensive lineman to build around.
Daniels was a Pro Bowl selection last season to replace the Rams’ injured Aaron Donald. He had 72 tackles and five sacks while continuing to be the unit’s vocal leader.
Lowry is a better athlete than he gets credit for being. He has shown to be effective against the run and pass. His upside is significant.
Adams, a third-round pick out of Auburn, has potential as an interior pass rusher.
The defensive line gives Pettine a strong foundation up front. It’ll be interesting to see how he mixes and matches in an effort to keep players fresh and generate a pass rush.
** Edge rusher
It was arguably the position of greatest need going into the offseason, and it remains that going into this training camp.
Clay Matthews admitted the depth at outside (edge) linebacker is very unproven and inexperienced. The fact is the starting edge rushers (Matthews and Nick Perry) have left a lot to be desired.
Matthews hasn’t had a truly productive season since 2015 when he had 6.5 sacks and was named to the Pro Bowl. Since then it’s been one nagging injury after another. Perhaps this will be the year Matthews finds the Fountain of Youth and rekindles the explosiveness off the edge for one more magical season.
Perhaps, but I wouldn’t bank on it.
Perry had seven sacks last season, second on the team, but three of those came against a weak Bears’ offensive line being led by a rookie (Mitchell Trubisky) quarterback.
Perry needs to be more consistent and stay healthy.
After that it’s slim.
Vince Biegel was injured last season, and Kyler Fackrell has been a washout as a third-round pick. The Packers better hope Matthews and Perry successfully pace themselves and that Biegel steps up and contributes. One possibility might be to play Biegel – if he’s up to it – on early downs to allow Matthews to stay fresh throughout the season and avoid injuries.
Pettine’s going to have to be creative if the Packers are going to get hits on opposing quarterbacks.
** Linebacker
Blake Martinez is a player.
He led the Packers with 158 tackles, including 107 solo, becoming the first player since AJ Hawk in 2013 to eclipse the 150-tackle total.
Martinez, a consummate pro, should benefit from what looks like an improved defensive line. If he makes a similar leap from Year 2 to Year 3 as he did from his rookie season, the Packers just might have an All-Pro inside linebacker for the first time since Nitschke.
Jake Ryan, a fourth-year pro, is Martinez’s inside mate for now. Ryan had 89 tackles, second on the team, but didn’t make nearly enough impact plays. At times, he was victimized in coverage, too.
Oren Burks, the third-round pick from Vanderbilt, is a hybrid safety-linebacker who should be valuable in pass situations. His presence should allow second-year pro Josh Jones to focus on being a full-time safety next to Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
** Cornerback
Tramon Williams was a godsend.
The veteran corner knows Pettine and he knows the Packers. His experience is going to be invaluable to both. House’s presence was necessary, too. He and Williams are the only defensive backs with meaningful experience.
The young talent is interesting to say the least.
First-round pick Jaire Alexander can run like the wind and he’s got terrific instincts. Second-round pick Josh Jackson has a good feel for the game and excellent hands. When Jackson gets his mitts on the football he almost always catches it.
After that, it’s up to Quinten Rollins, Demetri Goodson, Josh Hawkins, Lenzy Pipkins and others to deliver.
** Safety
Clinton-Dix posted 86 tackles and three interceptions last season. He was limited by Burnett’s injuries, which forced him to play more of a center field role. Clinton-Dix believes it diminished his ability to make plays on the football.
Both he and fans expect more this season.
Jones, a second-year pro, is set to be Clinton-Dix’s running mate at safety. A big hitter with speed, Jones might play near the line more on some downs, where he can blitz or play the run.
Kentrell Brice provides depth.
Prediction: The Packers’ defense is going to be of great interest early in training camp. Pettine’s way of doing things will be under tremendous scrutiny, most of it out of curiosity and hope.
NEXT WEEK: Packers’ 2018 overview