Defensive Transition Will Be A Challenge

Packers may not have the right pieces yet.

In the 2021 CHTV Pro Football Draft Guide, Ross Uglem writes a terrific article analyzing how the Packers' current personnel might or not might not fit into the Fangio/Staley defense that new coordinator Joe Barry is charged with installing.  My impression after the read is that the transition is not going to be an easy one.

 

Uglem points out that, if the Packers are going to emulate the Rams defense, which Brandon Staley ran so well last year that it got him the head coaching job with the Chargers, there are some issues.  For one, the Packers don't have enough of the type of player required on the defensive line.  Also, the system calls for lighter, faster edge rushers, meaning Za'darius and Preston Smith, and Rashan Gary, who are heavier, power types, don't fit well.

 

The Rams' system also involves often moving safeties closer to the line, and puts a lot of pressure on corners to tackle.   It's no secret tackling has been an issue in the Green Bay secondary.

 

All of which causes one to wonder, in retrospect, if the decision to change coordinators was a wise one.  I've been re-watching several games from last season.  The improvement in the defense from the early part of the year to the end was remarkable.  Green Bay struggled to stop anything, run or pass in the early going.  They yielded an average of over 28 points per game through the first seven contests.

 

But beginning in week nine, when the Pack limited a banged up 49ers team to 17 points, the unit began to show steady improvement.  Five of the last nine regular season opponents were held to 17 points or less.  Then the Rams were held to 18 in the divisional round of the playoffs.  

 

Individual improvement was striking.  Gradually, Gary was approaching unstoppable, as his pass rush was developing variety and creativity.  Darnell Savage was becoming more instinctive about locating the ball and getting to the spot on time.  Preston Smith was setting a consistently solid edge, forcing ball carriers inside to his help, as Green Bay became much more effective against the run.  The unit peaked in a snowy week sixteen victory over Tennessee, as vaunted running back Derrick Henry was held to 28 yards below his per game average, and Ryan Tannehill was limited to 121 yards passing, with two interceptions.

 

Despite the gaffe at the end of the half in the NFC championship game, the Green Bay defense probably played well enough to win, after intercepting Tom Brady three times, and limiting the Bucs to 76 yards rushing.  Remember, it was the offense that fumbled the ball away deep in their own end, giving away one score,  and It was the offense that couldn't succeed in the clutch, despite being given the ball three times in the 4th quarter, down by eight.  

 

The loss left a bitter taste in the mouth of Matt LaFleur, who then pulled the trigger on coordinator changes on defense and special teams.

 

Did Mike Pettine get the axe just as his unit was beginning to reach its potential?  In his Draft Guide article, which I highly recommend, Uglem maintains the change was justified.  "Green Bay selected eight defensive players in the top 100,  including Jaire Alexander, Rashan Gary, and Darnell Savage" he wrote.  "The Packers also gave free agent contracts to defenders Davon House, Tramon Williams, Muhammad Wilkerson, Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith, and Christian Kirksey.  Pettine was given every chance to succeed and ultimately did not."

 

So now Green Bay goes a different direction on defense.   It may take awhile to assemble the right people in the right places to make it work.  Don't be surprised if things on that side of the ball get a bit worse before they get better.

 

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Ken Lass is a former Green Bay television sports anchor and 43 year media veteran, a lifelong Packers fan, and a shareholder.

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Comments (48)

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murf7777's picture

April 12, 2021 at 06:21 am

Your assumptions don’t take into consideration that we have no idea what type of Defense Barry plans to run. A good coordinator will adjust to the talent available to him.

The blunder of a play seconds before halftime by Pettine was the stick that broke the camels back.

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PackEyedOptimist's picture

April 12, 2021 at 07:43 am

I agree, Murf. We have no idea what LaFleur/Barry are planning for the defense, other than MLF's comment that he wanted it to be more aggressive.

On a related side note, in my draft analysis, I keep wanting offensive linemen, but when I run full mock drafts, I'm always the most happy with my results when I've gone defense for the first three picks, then offense for the rest, e.g. 29: ILB Zaven Collins, 61: CB Ifeatu Melifonwu, 92: DL Bobby Brown, followed by players like RB/WRs Demetric Felton/Trey Sermon/Jaret Patterson/Kylin Hill/Jermar Jefferson/Larry Rountree/Torrance Marable , WRs Josh Imatorbhebhe/Amari Rodgers/Dazz Newsome/Frank Darby/Simi Fehoko/Whop Philyor, and OLs Robert Hainsey/Adrian Ealy/Alaric Jackson/Tommy Kraemer/Larry Borom/Michal Menet etc.

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Coldworld's picture

April 12, 2021 at 08:56 am

The draft will be our first window into Barry’s intentions.

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murf7777's picture

April 12, 2021 at 09:18 am

I like your thoughts on Defense, instead of Zaven Collins, take a look at Jamin Davis, if for no other reason than his name:) Actually, I've watched tape on both and Nick Bolton and like Davis the best for his great upside potential. If they want immediate production I'd take Bolton. I see Collins as a tweener between edge/ILB and that concerns me.

If we can get Melifonwu in the 2nd that would be awesome. Haven't followed Bobby Brown. But, at that stage I'm hoping for OL help.

I see WR's taken in the 4th round and later. That said, it wouldn't surprise me if one is taken in the 2nd round.

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jannes bjornson's picture

April 12, 2021 at 10:54 am

If Collins falls, he will be a playmaker. Then move P.Smith in a trade. Need two more CBs from the draft. A WR in the second is necessary, maybe they go OT and bag a WR in the third? Still, too many holes to fill to cover for Jackson and Burks whiffs.

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fastmoving's picture

April 14, 2021 at 02:44 am

WR is the least needed position on this team by far.

Enough good ones with high ceiling. And some already great ones.
AR trust problems.
WR need a lot of time to break out.
There is only one ball.

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Coldworld's picture

April 12, 2021 at 08:11 am

LaFleur had expressed frustration with Pettine’s passivity after several games. Taking a D he designed for pressure and trying to make it focused on stopping big plays had it fighting itself. I think Pettine lost confidence in himself.

So glad he is gone. That doesn’t mean I see Barry as a savior, just that Pettine had become a liability. The play to end the half was a horrid screw up, but it wasn’t the underlying cause. Removing Pettine in itself removed a big inhibitor.

Play to your strengths, don’t fight them and don’t deny the obvious. The better play came from the players, despite the coach. Let’s hope Barry is at least more astute in those respects.

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jannes bjornson's picture

April 12, 2021 at 10:50 am

Get a couple more bigs and run more 4-2/5-2 looks and some 4/3. Lancaster can be a backup NT and cover a DT spot, but expecting him and really, Lowry to be five tech standard bearers is ludicrous.

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flackcatcher's picture

April 12, 2021 at 05:28 pm

Pettine didn't control the timeouts, Lafleur did. Why he did not call one, and have Pettine reset the defense is basic 101 football. Pettine has become a too easy punching bag for things he had no control over.

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Coldworld's picture

April 13, 2021 at 08:17 am

Pettine should have been let go for the season not the one call and if not for the season, for his whole first half defensive strategy ignoring every lesson that went before.

That said, to say that a coordinator, realizing that he had just had a brain fart should not have the wit or courage to call a TO on his screw up does not fly with me. Relying on others, on the field or off, to pick up on one’s howler in real time is the opposite of leadership.

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flackcatcher's picture

April 13, 2021 at 11:09 am

That was Gutekunst's call. Never Lafleur's. Which is the crux of the matter. Lafleur handled it badly. Blaming Pettine for responsibilities he had no control over is disingenuous on your part. No one outside 1265 knows the internal dynamics between the three men. And those who know aren't talking. I'm not giving a Pettine a pass. Based on their relationship, it was time for Pettine to go, But that does not give Lafleur a pass on game management. He controlled the sideline and timeouts. I repeat, basic football 101. Lafleur blew it.

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BrettGB's picture

April 12, 2021 at 06:42 pm

I think the fact that the entire defensive staff is returning is telling. I don't really think there are going to be very big changes in the defense itself, more so a change in mindset.

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nostradanus's picture

April 12, 2021 at 06:40 am

I didn’t like the firing of Pettine or the new hire but MLF has earned the right to make these tough decisions.

This will be a year of transition on Defense for sure but they have enough talent to overcome that.

I believe they will sign a few defensive pieces after June 1st cuts when it won’t affect draft compensatory picks and they can get a few veteran players on the cheap.

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blacke00's picture

April 12, 2021 at 07:54 am

I disagree with you on the firing(long overdue), but agree totally with your point on signings after June 1st.

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flackcatcher's picture

April 12, 2021 at 04:13 pm

Well, I disagree with you on the firing. But agree with both of you on the signings.

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flackcatcher's picture

April 12, 2021 at 04:21 pm

Heck, I comment his working without a contract all last season. (Bangs head on desk) Brain lock... :-(0

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jeremyjjbrown's picture

April 12, 2021 at 08:42 am

Pettine wasn't fired. His contract ran out.

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Coldworld's picture

April 12, 2021 at 09:00 am

Technically yes, but let’s be honest, he was out of there and jumped at a non HC/DC position in a flash.

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flackcatcher's picture

April 12, 2021 at 04:24 pm

Now that's a backstory I like hear about.

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SwedeBayPacker's picture

April 12, 2021 at 06:48 am

So, we're an off-season away from a potential implosion on the defensive side of the ball, good to know.

But hey, we totally lucked out with MLF, maybe the same thing will happen with Barry?

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stockholder's picture

April 12, 2021 at 07:40 am

We've known for years that the DL has Sucked. Yet; Gute won't do a thing about it. The old Ideas die Hard. But that is exactly what we've seen the last 10 years. The lighter, faster, isn't working. Especially on the Defensive line. I have No problem with the smiths being heavy. The Offensive Lineman are just getting bigger and faster. But what I see is the constant re-building of a secondary. The need at ILB. Positions which have been avoided by Gute. 13-3 for the last two years was great. But close and No cigar sucks. We have a sizzling offense. Yet; Gute's last draft wouldn't make anyone a winner. So lets kill the past. Start fresh. Give Barry a DL that will help Clark, and change the Trench. You won't find a better draft to do it. Regardless of the evaluation BS. Push the pile first!

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LambeauPlain's picture

April 12, 2021 at 08:01 am

ML almost had the thoroughbred hired in Leonard, but when he decided to stay in Madison, Matt decided to get a familiar plow horse instead.

Barry's selection greatly surprised me. Not only did Barry fail at his last two DC stints, he coached LBs for the #1 Rams D that were ranked as the worst by PFF.

I hope he is better than Pettine...but his opening presser did not inspire me....rambling and rarely to the point.

Fortunately he is surrounded by some good assistants.

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LambeauPlain's picture

April 12, 2021 at 08:04 am

Good article, by the way.

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Coldworld's picture

April 12, 2021 at 08:04 am

In my view, Pettine was holding his own players back. The defense and the defensive strategy in the first half against Tampa was execrable. Only when his hand was forced did the play turn around. The season in miniature.

Tennessee was an outlier after the Defensive delegation, from which Pettine retreated. It showed what we could do with better player usage and a more positive mindset. The second half against Tampa was forced, but the nearest we came to that.

I have no idea what Barry wants, but if it doesn’t learn from Tennessee and usage of players on the line and DBs, it won’t go well.

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greengold's picture

April 12, 2021 at 04:54 pm

Barry wants what LaFleur wants. Guessing it is a more versatile, flexible group of players at key positions to better adjust to the more flexible formations out of same sets like his Packers present. More immediacy.

I like the change, expect bigger Safeties/ILB tweeners added with lighter, faster, DEs plus a real NT.

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jeremyjjbrown's picture

April 12, 2021 at 08:44 am

"All of which causes one to wonder, in retrospect, if the decision to change coordinators was a wise one."

I think that sometimes too, but then I remember that Z had to go and tell Pettine what to do. Pettine couldn't seen it for hisself even though lots of people saw it. It was the same problem with Capers. Too fancy of a scheme, not enough focus on fundamentals.

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LambeauPlain's picture

April 12, 2021 at 09:32 am

Yeah. I read at mid season several D players led by Z went to Pettine and implore him to simplify as too many players were thinking too much and missing assignments.

I really liked Pettine being hired but man, did he disappoint. After the SF pounding I was hoping Matt would move on...and he delayed his decision for over a week. I wonder if Murphy and/or Gutey convinced Matt to keep him on. Pettine was totally focused to stop the pass and played Dime as his base. He just didn't seem to care how soft his defenses were against the run playing Dime.

Fortunately the best Packer defense last year was the Offense keeping the D off the field for long stretches. The Packer D had the fewest number of plays in the NFL last year...and it was not due to consistent 3 and outs.

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Since'61's picture

April 12, 2021 at 10:27 am

LambeauPlain, an excellent point about the Packers offense being their best defense. The Packers were ranked #1 in average TOP in 2020 with an average TOP of 32.39 per game.

Although the Packers defense spent the least amount of time on the field of any defense in the league they still only managed a middle of the pack ranking as the #13 defense in the league for average points allowed per game (23.1). Imagine if the TOP numbers were reversed.

In fairness they did improve during the second half of the season which made their first half implosion against the Bucs in the NFCCG all the more disappointing and discouraging.

I believe that the transition to Barry will start well for the first 3-4 games of the 2021 season. The real test will begin once teams have enough tape to figure out what Barry is doing on defense. Then we will see how well Barry adjusts his defense to the adjustments that our opponents are sure to make based on the tape as the season goes on. Thanks, Since '61

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jannes bjornson's picture

April 12, 2021 at 11:01 am

Get smarter players on the defense. To watch 3-4 year guys making rookie mistakes is mind-bending.

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PhantomII's picture

April 12, 2021 at 03:38 pm

Or watch Amos a second contract vet, let the TE plod by him at the goal line. 1-2 seconds later it clicks he may should have covered him and.....too late easy no covered T.D. If this is the way you play in practice and normal season games....you're going to make the same bigger mistakes in the playoffs. Draft a CB, DL and Safety in top 4 rounds that anticipate and make plays. You should be keyed up in a game of this magnitude, not slow and numb to it.

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splitpea1's picture

April 12, 2021 at 12:34 pm

It was the right move to go in a different direction. We may not have all the right pieces yet, but you have to start somewhere. More pressure on the CBs to tackle--uh-oh! I don't think Pettine deserves all the blame, though, as two of those top 100 picks included Jackson and Burks; House and Wilkerson were injured early, and Kirksey was ineffective until he was moved. We also re-signed King, Lancaster, and Redmond, and those pieces are definitely not long-term solutions.

And while the defense may have improved during the second half of the season, we really didn't play any scary QBs; this time around we'll get R. Wilson, L. Jackson, and Mahomes--these will be benchmark games for our new defense.

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JohnnyLogan's picture

April 12, 2021 at 02:42 pm

Can someone explain the rationale for hiring Barry. I see nothing in his resume to presume he'll be better than Pettine, or me.

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flackcatcher's picture

April 12, 2021 at 05:01 pm

Short story: Last man standing. Lafleur seems to not want to get rid of the defensive scheme, just the man behind it. To be honest, Lafleur could no longer stand Pettine. Whatever had been building between the two men finally exploded after the NFC Champ game with Tampa. In reality there was nothing Gute could have done to smooth over the situation. Someone had to go, and since Pettine was working without a contract, he left. That Pettine left so late in the hiring period put the Packers in a box. That's not Pettine fault, that is all on Lafleur. Since the Packers have been running a pro version of the Wisconsin defense, it made sense for Lafleur to make a run at Jim Leonhard, but Leonhard, who is highly regarded as one of the real bright minds in football had made clear he wasn't leaving Madison anytime soon. So there were only a handful of assistant coaches available once Leonhard declined. And that's how the Packers hired Barry.

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greengold's picture

April 13, 2021 at 08:46 am

I don't think it is out of the question that Matt LaFleur knows a hell of a lot more about D than people might give him credit for, and that he hired Barry to do what LaFleur wanted to see, with Barry's own concepts mixed in. This is now Matt LaFleur's team in full. Pettine was forced upon LaFleur. Now, LaFleur has a better handle on ALL that we will be seeing on both sides of the ball.

LaFleur seems like a very reasonable guy, and I'm certain he wants Barry to feel he can run this defense under the agreed upon parameters at his hiring. Thinking LaFleur will be a big contributor to those defensive concepts we will see this year and next. As a HC, finding someone to run what you want done, a DC who is willing to team with your vision, is a good thing.

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flackcatcher's picture

April 13, 2021 at 11:40 am

I'm sure that's a large part of it with Lafleur. As HC, he did deserve to have his own guy. The other part is how inexperience he was when hired. Lafleur was a pretty deep hire at the time with only limited OC experience. It made sense to have an experience DC hand at the time of his hire. That was decision Gutekunst made. Lafleur seems to have resented that. Pettine became the itch that Lafleur couldn't scratch. For Lafleur, there is no one to hide behind, which is good. If he is the complete HC then this team should continue to excel. If not, then Gute will have some more hard choice ahead.

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jhtobias's picture

April 12, 2021 at 02:55 pm

I would blame and gute.. petine just proved time an time again not to use the right players .. Gute does not get a pass when your 2nd best dlineman is Dean Lowery that is a huge problem and a bigger problem is having lowrey count for over 6 million in salary cap this yr.

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PhantomII's picture

April 12, 2021 at 03:50 pm

Gute said I like the DL players. Say no more. Oblivious and content with his picks. 13-3 in dire need of DL , #2 WR and stud ILB. We get unneeded #3 QB for a 1st and 4th round pick, Unneeded then massively underutilized #2 RD RB, Yet another TE for a top 3 wish list from Gute. Unbelievable....you can't make this stuff up. The Smiths and Gary did learn how to set the edge as a huge improvement this last season though. Glad Pettine is gone.

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jannes bjornson's picture

April 12, 2021 at 07:57 pm

He had Pennel in the house in 2019, but let him walk to KC. He helped win a SB and the 49rs ground the Pack into oblivion. There is a big dis-connect on developing a bad ass defense in Green Bay and that idea seems part of the FO. "culture" Why?

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greengold's picture

April 13, 2021 at 12:46 pm

This is true. Pennel was the top FA DL in run stop efficiency at the time, and my head explodes to this day trying to figure out how the fu*k Pennel wasn't signed to the Packers' roster.

HUGE FA miss by Gutekunst.

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flackcatcher's picture

April 13, 2021 at 10:36 pm

Big off the field issues with Pennel. Player fit is a big deal with Green Bay. Not at all surprised Gute passed on him.

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flackcatcher's picture

April 12, 2021 at 06:05 pm

Frankly, all this whining about Pettine is garbage. Man directs two back to back defenses into the NFC champ game, and he's to blame for their loses. It's a team game folks. It's OK to vent, but at least be honest about it. Most here are the older commenters who love the front four DL of the past 30 years of pro football, and hate Pettine for seeming to reject that defensive style. The decision made by the NFL, to liberalize the pass rules in favor of the offense completely change the nature of the game. For defensive's, it was no longer 'pressure and sack', but 'cover and contain'. To think DC like Pettine would not adjust, and change in the face of racial reform of the game itself, well, that's being damn stupid. Heck, I think that the game has been degraded by the rules changes that make the QB all powerful. That's not on Pettine. He got the Green Bay Packers to two back to back NFC Champ games despite the rule changes. I hope Berry does as well this year.

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PhantomII's picture

April 12, 2021 at 06:48 pm

Pettine is who he is. Sorry, he was not the answer. Hope Barry does do better also, at least ML picked his guy win or lose. ML offense was on the field more, defense less....that helps a lot and scoring a bunch of points in most. I like 2......QUALITY DL, not 1 and a bunch of practice squad types. That's exactly why our expensive DL Clark is always hurt and does not show out better.

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flackcatcher's picture

April 13, 2021 at 10:26 pm

I may the last man standing on Pettine. I get it. Easy to blame for the failures on the field, easy punching bag rather than taking a hard look at the other side of the football. For all the complaints about his unit, they controlled the field, and more often than not won the turnover battle. I have no give on Pettine as a DC. He was the right man at the right place at the right time. And no, he did not cost us the title game. Field goal, right.

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4thand10's picture

April 12, 2021 at 08:32 pm

Pettine ran a pretty good 4-3 style when he was with the jets. His first yr in GB when I saw 3 DL on the LOS with one being Mo Wilkerson...they got great middle pressure and rushing was kept at bay....and then last yr, with the exception of the Titans game....I couldn’t tell the difference between what Pettine was doing and what capers had done...2 DL dime package on practically every play BS which historically stops absolutely nothing.

TB pounded the ball just like the Titans and Brady has always been just a game manager with great defenses, a great running game and great TEs.... so why not use the same defense they used with the Titans the whole game? Anyway, I know absolutely nothing about this new DC. But for the love of god they need to draft a DL or 2. There wasn’t even enough to substitute last yr and that’s on Gutey.

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Coldworld's picture

April 13, 2021 at 08:23 am

We had bigger and effective players, Pettine either didn’t use them or have them less than ten snaps only to stick them back on the bench even when they were effective. Whatever Pettine was thinking, his personnel choices killed the D Line not the roster.

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flackcatcher's picture

April 13, 2021 at 12:30 pm

Those are questions that Gutekunst should answer. Been asking the same questions for the past two years on why the Packers DL room was so light on both weight and personnel. When Pettine was hired he was asked if he was changing to a 4-3. (Jason Wilde then of ESPN Milwaukee) he said the pre snap doesn't matter, as long as you get pressure on the QB. I took that as a large NO. That team did get three at the line, but if you go back to watch the all-22, there was a real switch to a new defensive scheme in the second half of that season. It was clear that Gute was all in to bringing the Wisconsin 2-5 to Green Bay. Otherwise, we would have never seen the Smiths signing or Gray draft. Frankly most teams play three DL, but in the modern game is always dropping one into cover over the middle. Most don't see it because of the way the game is presented on TV. I think, (or should I say guess) that the numbers in the DL room were sacrificed for roster construction. Keeping prospects away from other teams using the active roster. The Packers did that in 2019 with the offensive line. (And it bit them in the NFC title game) Will Gute finally fix the hole in the DL. IDK IDK IDK. We will have to wait and see.

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HarryHodag's picture

April 13, 2021 at 10:41 am

Like the "Butterfly Effect", the "Aaron Rodgers Effect" has affected the defense and before him the "Brett Favre Effect". It's rare to have HOF QB's available and that's a good thing. But in order for a QB of that caliber to function, you need players around him capable of reaching peak potential. So for the last 25+ years the Packers have focused on building a good offensive supporting cast first. This has led to some real gaps on defense. The theory being the team can outscore an opponent if the defense is shaky.
Going forward, the chances of Jordan Love or any other QB reaching Favre/Rodgers status is low. So beginning this year, to keep the team competitive, they need to focus on building the defense to help keep the Packers in games, as the offense is likely to be less prolific.

I can't figure the hiring of Barry, given that there were many quality DC candidates including at least one already on staff.

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greengold's picture

April 13, 2021 at 11:20 am

The Packers Defense was severely compromised for 3 years prior to Brian Gutekunst taking over as GM. That was a HUGE talent void, where just 1 player showed up consistently all the way through: Kenny Clark.

3 R1s later and it's no where near enough. A lot of proving left with Keke & Martin, and the Packers should cover those & other bases accordingly.

One player who might benefit immensely from a switch to more of a zone coverage scheme is CB Josh Jackson. It would be immensely cool if he were to realize his full potential in this new Defense. Regardless, there is much to address on this side of the ball. Again.

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