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Familiarity key for Packers' defense in second season under Pettine

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Familiarity key for Packers' defense in second season under Pettine

-- New Year's Eve 2017 saw the Green Bay Packers stumble once more, tripping over their own hasty feet en route to a 35-11 defeat at Ford Field. It completed a season sweep for the Detroit Lions and handed the Packers their ninth loss of the season.

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford surpassed 300 passing yards and slung a trio of touchdowns -- gifting his top-three receivers with one each -- and mercifully ended the visitors' season. Albeit with Brett Hundley at the helm rather than Aaron Rodgers, who was back on injured reserve after a brief return from a broken collarbone two weeks prior, no one expected much from the team's sputtering -- and sometimes downright pitiful -- offense.

Defensively, however, the Packers were still significantly outmatched. While that may have been a result of personnel decisions than anything else, i.e., players playing out of position, team brass felt otherwise.

New Year's Even 2017 marked the final appearance on the Packers' sideline for defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who was relieved of his duties the following day. A not-so-surprising, but necessary start to 2018.

It was a move that paved the road for Mike Pettine to come aboard, officially becoming Capers' successor just over a week later.

The rugged, "no-BS" attitude of Pettine helped guide the Packers to a middle-of-the-pack defense in his first season. They finished 12th in passing yards allowed, 22nd in rushing yards allowed and surrendered the 22nd-fewest points of any team -- not flashy by any means. But given the Packers' depleted arsenal defensively, Pettine's first campaign was far from a disappointment.

Even despite playing in all 16 games, Clay Matthews was essentially a non-factor for most of the season. As was Nick Perry, who played in just nine games while battling an ankle injury he never fully recovered from. The disastrous safety play warranted constantly being tested deep by opposing quarterbacks, and a pair of rookie cornerbacks, Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson, still had their own growing pains to overcome.

But the Packers' biggest improvement from the season before came on third downs. In 2017, they allowed a 42.8 percent third-down conversion rate. They jumped from 28th in the league to 13th a year later, allowing 37.3 percent.

These few glimpses offer insight into what may be on the horizon for Pettine's defense, and entering year two, the chances of success only increase with familiarity within the system.

"For where we are, 'happy' is a strong word," Pettine said during minicamp last month, via Packers.com. "I like the progression of where we are. Certain players are at different points. We challenge them all the time in meetings that they should, at any point, have a good sense of their own personal inventory. What they're doing well, what they're not doing well, what they need to get things up to speed.I think everybody's in different spaces."

Returning players include Alexander and Jackson, expected to be a pair of staples in the Packers' secondary for years to come. Oren Burks, a third-round pick who played just 11.5 percent of the team's defensive snaps in his rookie year, is also staring at a bigger role in 2019.

The only remaining defensive players from the Packers' 2017 draft class are cornerback Kevin King, safety Josh Jones and defensive lineman Montravius Adams. When healthy, King is a centerpiece at his position and Adams has reportedly been one of the standouts during this year's offseason workout program. Jones, a second-round pick, requested a trade during the spring.

"I like where the returning guys are. I think they've been able to take a deeper dive into the details of what we're trying to get done. I think that's showed up from the standpoint of understanding the calls a little bit better of when we call them and why we call them. Knowing what to do has become, for most of them, second nature."

Pettine and co. were rewarded a trio of defensive free agent signings in March. Za'Darius and Preston Smith both weaponize the Packers' group of pass rushers -- along with the addition of first-round pick Rashan Gary -- and essentially remakes the appearance of the entire unit. Adrian Amos became a key ingredient to the safety room, giving Pettine someone who is interchangeable at both free safety and strong safety.

The Packers' second first-round pick, Darnell Savage, has already been running with the first-team defense throughout organized team activities and minicamp.

Entering last season, an emphasis -- and a perk behind Pettine's philosophy -- was getting to the quarterback. It showed in the form of the third-most sacks in the league, thanks in part to Pettine's ability to send blitzers from various locations. His defense, while among some of the league's best in terms of rushing the passer, still failed to create takeaways.

He's preaching a different tune in 2019.

"The biggest thing for us is attacking the football and having that mentality," Pettine said. "We've been using the phrase 'ball awareness' and I think we've done a much better job this spring, as the runners are coming through, of where the football is.

"We didn't do a good enough job of coaching last year."

The current defensive unit the Packers sport may very well be their most talented in recent memory -- at least on paper. That may end up making Pettine's job in coaching them up to his standard that much easier.

He also has, for the most part, an entirely new defensive staff around him.

"As a defensive staff, before the players got here, spend a good amount of time spit-balling. Obviously, there's other factors that go into it: when you're playing with a lead, matchups and those types of things. Just our awareness of the football and attacking it has to go up. I think we've done a good job of emphasizing it this spring."

__________________________

Zachary Jacobson is a staff writer/reporter for Cheesehead TV. He's the voice of The Leap on iTunes and can be heard on The Scoop KLGR 1490 AM every Saturday morning. He's also a contributor on the Pack-A-Day Podcast. He can be found on Twitter via @ZachAJacobson or contacted through email at [email protected].

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (21) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

Nick Perry's picture

"Za'Darius and Preston Smith both weaponize the Packers' group of pass rushers -- along with the addition of first-round pick Rashan Gary"

I honestly believe this point can't be overdone or talked about too much. It's been YEARS since the Packers could put more than one pass rusher on the field at once. I know, we had Matthews and Perry. But by the time Perry finally did it for ONE season, Matthews was at a point in his career where it no longer took 2 O-Linemen to block him. With Perry always injured or coming back from injury it was pretty easy for the opposing offense to scheme to take the ONE pass rusher the Packers could throw at the offense.

Now the defense has "The Smiths, Gary, Frackrell, Clark, and Daniels who can actually get after the QB on their own abilities, AND a DC who can scheme up pressure from anywhere and anybody... HA, I think I'm in heaven!

porupack's picture

Exactly right, NP on the pass rushers.
To add to your point, a good pass rush with glaring weaknesses in the coverage is only marginally helpful.

That number Zach pulled up; 42% third down conversion rate in 2017 is ugly. Now I have handy data for why I cringed every 3rd down defensive snap.

So, now investing equally in the dback coverage as well as pass rush should make a significant improvement, including the second off season for a number of players, and a second year for Pettine himself.
Oh, and sure hope those 2017 defensive draft picks make an impact; King, Jackson, MAdams. MAdams, please make yourself known.

Guam's picture

Spot on comment NP! We may actually be able to generate a pass rush without blitzing a fifth guy or scheming a free ILB or safety. I love that our leading pass rusher last year (Fackrell) is going to be our 3rd/4th pass rushing OLB this year.

Our defense could be fun to watch!

Tundraboy's picture

And this.

"We didn't do a good enough job of coaching last year."

A coach who is secure and confident to take responsibility and own it. I know I'm reading into it, but it sounds like a man who is not happy about it and plans to make sure that is a thing of the past.

Aubrey's picture

"New Year's Even 2017 marked the final appearance on the Packers' sideline for defensive coordinator Dom Capers"

Dom couldn't go on the sideline in case the wind got up and tested the glue holding his hair on.

stockholder's picture

Familiarity? We use to have one of the best defenses in NFL history. The training and experience only partially prepares the defensive unit. Strength and Power were the factors involved in any great defense. We've had Lack of diversity, No Balance, and players that just weren't resilient. Personal strengths without the right strategic skill, will wreck any enthusiasm. Pettine must find intimidating players! And use them right strategically. Only then will we have a great defense again.

Lare's picture

One nice thing about Pettine's defense is that opposing offenses don't know where the rush is coming from. Especially this season where he has plentiful personnel resources to work with in pass rush and pass coverage.

As always, control the LOS, stay healthy, don't beat yourselves.

Handsback's picture

The defense needed an influx of talent. Like me playing golf. A pro looked at my game and said "You got no LOFT". I replied...I get loft on my hits. He came back with, "no don't have any LOFT, lack of freaking talent". Cleaned it up for the comment section but you get the point. Green Bay has had areas of great talent, Rodgers/Adams/Bak/Matthews/Clark/Daniels, but very little they could depend on elsewhere esp. the defensive side of the ball. Almost half of their starters have been replaced by the Smiths, Amos, Gary and Savage.
So if past teams didn't have a bad case of the LOFT...I'm not sure what else you could point your finger to.

Lphill's picture

If Gary can contribute right away then this years defense can be one of the best ever, it will be exciting to see Rodgers have a defense that can keep feeding him back the ball. keeping Pettine was a no brainer.

Since '61's picture

All of our improvements on defense sound good and look good on paper. However, all the improvements are dependent upon better tackling. If the Packers defense does not improve their tackling it will undercut everything else they are trying to do.

Meetings are good, understanding the defensive calls is critical, a better more consistent pass rush is a necessity as well as better play from the Safeties. But tackling will improve the defensive results on the field. Football is still “about blocking and tackling.”

We won’t know if the tackling has improved until the real games begin. Thanks, Since ‘61

Bearmeat's picture

The Packers were most definitely NOT one of the better pass rushing teams in the league last year. Yeah, they got a lot of sacks. Yeah, their 3rd down stop percentage was respectable. Do a deeper statistical dive though: what was their QB pressure rate? Their QB hit rate?

Both were very bad. Those MUST improve this year. Gute and Pettine both knew it - hence the 2 FA signings and Gary at 12.

Packer Fan's picture

Bearmeat, you nailed it for me. Pressure on the QB is just as important as sacks. That is what both if the Smith's do well. That is why I am so high on them. And we need some young players to improve and do well.

Thegreatreynoldo's picture

On the one hand, despite GB's gross total of 44 sacks, which ranked 10th in the NFL, GB ranked 30th in QB hits with just 74 and was almost as poor on a QB hit/pass attempt basis.

OTOH, GB had the 9th best pressure rate in the NFL, getting pressure on 35.96% of passing attempts, per Chris Trapasso of the Buffalo News, and finished 10th in gross total with 215 pressures.

For those interested, LAR finished 1st with a 40% rate, followed by Philly, JAX, and Balt. Chicago finished 5th at 37.34%, MN 8th at 36.41, and Detroit was 31st at 29.04% with just 158 pressures. Oakland sans Khalil Mack finished 32nd with just 120 pressures and a 23% rate. The league average was 33.7% and the median was about 33.5%.

I have never heard of Trapasso, but it sounds like he is using PFF data, though he does not credit PFF as clearly as I would have if that were the case.

Sooooo, I have to admit to Old School that arguably GB as a team was among the better teams in the NFL at pass rushing. Sacks and QB hits are pretty objective stats, whereas pressure has more of an element of subjectivity. GB is good at one objective stat, bad at another objective stat, and is good at the subjective stat of pressures.

Here is a partial link:
buffalonews.com/2019/01/03/bills-pass-rush-finishes-regular-season-sixth-in-defensive-pressure-rate/

As a note, KC was first in sacks (52) and Chicago and MN tied for 3rd with 50 sacks for each team. Detroit was 11th with 43 sacks (but had a poor pressure rate, ranking 31st. Jax finished tied for 22nd (through 25th) with 37 sacks but finished 3rd in pressure rate. NE finished 11th in pressure rate but was 30th in sacks with just 30 sacks.

Finishing high in pressure rate but low in sacks or QB hits (or the various combinations) leads to various inferences. Some would be that the sacks were due to the scheme, or there was good edge pressure but no interior penetration, allowing the QB to simply step up, or good interior pressure but no edge pressure, allowing the QB to simply roll out.

Sites do define "pressures" differently.

CheesyTex's picture

"Familiarity key ... in second year under Pettine".

With so many projected starters on defense in their first year under Pettine (Smiths, Amos, Savage, and even Gary as rotational) so many new defensive coaches under Pettine, I'm hoping these guys are all fast learners.

Also re Josh Jones: He wants out of GB and Duke Johnson wants out of Cleveland. Hope Gute could work out the trade -- rather have some nice depth at RB that fits MLF's system than a safety with issues. Brownies could use more DB help, and the Randall trade last year was good for them.

Nick Perry's picture

"Also re Josh Jones: He wants out of GB and Duke Johnson wants out of Cleveland. Hope Gute could work out the trade"

Now THAT'S an awesome idea... Josh Jones for Duke Johnson. Aaron Jones may turn out to be a great receiving RB but the truth is we don't know, not really. He did catch 24 balls last year but Johnson has 235 receptions in his career (61, 73, 54, and 47 last year). As much as I like the idea of giving Jones more opportunities, I love the idea of having an additional RB like Johnson.

dobber's picture

"The only remaining defensive players from the Packers' 2017 draft class are cornerback Kevin King, safety Josh Jones and defensive lineman Montravius Adams."

To say it differently, the only defensive draftee from 2017 who isn't still with the team is Vince Biegel, who is strictly a special teamer for the Saints (but hasn't washed out of the league, yet).

To say those three players haven't had the kind of impact the Packers need, would be an understatement. Certainly there has been some flash--mostly from King, occasionally from Adams. Year 3 is usually a big year for most young players, and a major step up for these three guys (and health) would make a big difference for this defense: not only in how it performs this season, but also in how it manages the roster the next couple years.

NMPF's picture

Familiarity is all fine and good but the bottom line is NFL football is the ultimate team sport. Even a top five D cannot, will not or ever will overcome a piss poor(32nd) ranked Special teams coupled with a below average offense. Add in the QB's throwing the ball away at a rate not seen in 15 years, the D had their backs against the wall all season. Losses @ DET, LAR, NE, SEA and vs ARZ had very little to do with a slightly below avg D and everything to do with way below avg ST and O.

Tarynfor12's picture

Familiarity is great, I just hope the familiarity hoped for isn't the same familiarity we've been suffering with.
We'll begin to see come August.

Coach JV's picture

I feel very good about our Defense. Very good indeed...

But let's not put the sled before the dogs... I'm still not sold on King lasting for even half a season. I wish we were a little deeper at CB. And Savage WILL have growing pains and get burned a couple of times... so keep that in mind. (He's gonna be awesome anyway).

I guess my real problem with the Secondary is that we still lack a ballhawk. It would've been nice to keep Breeland, because he is a good one. But, alas, he is gone and we need to find a remedy if we want those turnovers.

Nick Perry's picture

I really like Tony Brown. It seemed once he stopped making committing those stupid penalties he started to show he could play in this league. Also the kid we drafted in the 6th, Ka'dar Hollman is an interesting prospect.

I'm like you... I'm not sold on King staying healthy BUT if he does this defense takes another HUGE step forward. I also wouldn't sleep on Josh Jackson. I think he'll make some kind of jump but his biggest jump will come throughout the season as he learns.

Coach JV's picture

I like Brown too. I think he's more than able to play in this league. He might turn into a big talent this season. I like how well he plays Nickle, covering the slot receiver.

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