Packers’ defense has reason for optimism

By Chris Havel
Special to Event USA
Pettine’s return means continuity, respectability for Green Bay’s ‘D’
GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers’ most significant offseason move was hiring Matt LaFleur to replace Mike McCarthy as Green Bay’s head coach.

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It could be argued that LaFleur’s first big decision – retaining defensive coordinator Mike Pettine – rates a very close second.
It eliminates the arduous and unenviable task of starting anew on both sides of the ball, as well as special teams. While Aaron Rodgers and the offense work to implement LaFleur’s system, the Packers’ defense will be building upon the foundation laid by Pettine last season.
The defense’s post-season self-scout was revealing to Pettine. He said there was too much emphasis on teaching players what to do, rather than how to do it.
“We’re looking forward to having guys that are experienced in the system,” Pettine told reporters. “We have a much better sense of who we are and what our skill set is and what we want to get done. The nice thing is you don’t reset it to Year One. You have a little bit of momentum and you’ve built a pretty solid foundation with the guys you’re going to have back.”
So who’s coming back?
The defense can count on Kenny Clark, Mike Daniels, Dean Lowry and Tyler Lancaster up front. At inside linebacker, Blake Martinez leads a razor-thin group, while Kyler Fackrell showed promise as an edge rusher.
In the secondary, Jaire Alexander, Bashaud Breeland and Josh Jackson provide a strong nucleus at cornerback, while it’s Josh Jones and some guys at safety.
It seems likely that Clay Matthews and/or Nick Perry will be released within the next two weeks. It is possible Muhammad Wilkerson – who has stated he wants to return – and Tramon Williams also will be back to lend a hand on defense.
Green Bay’s defense made modest gains under Pettine, which doesn’t sound like much until you factor in all the injuries. That, combined with a new scheme, led to some forgettable showings.
Still, Pettine’s defense made strides in 2018.
The Packers’ defense ranked 12th in passing yards allowed, 13th in third-down percentage and 18th in total yards allowed. Each of those rankings reflects the defense’s improvement from 2017.
It also rose from 26th to 22nd in points allowed.
It’s not a meteoric rise, but it’s tracking in the right direction.
Pettine’s reconstituted staff includes returning defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery and defensive backs coach Jason Simmons as well as newcomers at outside linebacker (Mike Smith) and inside linebacker (Kirk Olivadotti).
“We feel really good about where we are now as a staff,” Pettine said. “We feel like we’re so much further ahead now than we were a year ago.”
Pettine sounded eager to get to work.
“We’re looking forward to getting the guys in here and get rolling,” he said.
So who might be coming in free agency and the draft?
Last week, I wrote about Baltimore edge rusher Za’Darius Smith, who posted 8 ½ sacks last season for the Ravens. Smith, a rangy 6-4, 272-pound pass rusher, is entering his prime.
Another edge rusher of interest could be Washington’s Preston Smith, who ranked eighth among edge rushers in a 3-4, according to Pro Football Focus.
Smith, 6-5, 260, hasn’t missed a game in four seasons. He also has 24 ½ sacks and has a relationship with Olivadotti, who was on the Redskins’ defensive staff, and vice-versa.
Olivadotti’s familiarity with Smith would double as an endorsement should the Packers sign him in free agency.
Now that the compensatory picks are all in the Packers know exactly where they will be picking in the draft.
Green Bay didn’t receive a compensatory pick for the first time since 2009, but they have three additional picks that were acquired via trades.
The Packers’ draft picks are as follows: Round 1 – the 12th and 30th picks; Round 2 – the 44th; Round 3 – the 75th; Round 4 – the 114th and 118th picks; Round 5 – the 150th pick; Round 6 – the 185th and 194th picks; Round 7 – the 226th pick.
Armed with an estimated $44 million-plus beneath the salary cap, and six draft picks in the first 118 selections, the Packers should be able to give the defense a significant boost.