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Mike Pettine's Defense is Built to Win When it Counts

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Mike Pettine's Defense is Built to Win When it Counts

The first few days of training camp are always interesting. It’s exciting to see new players and old players; rookies and veterans. But outside of the healthy return of Aaron Rodgers, which I think we have already seen, the thing I have wanted to see the most is the defense. 

And so far, things are looking pretty good.

It’s hard to explain it, but with Mike Pettine running the defense, it just has a different feel. The emphasis is definitely different. Pettine doesn’t stress stuffing the run as much as Dom Capers did and even though Pro Football Focus ranked the Packers run defense as the best heading into 2018, stopping the pass is more important. That’s where Pettine will come in.

Green Bay wasn’t great at stopping the run last season, but it wasn’t the biggest weakness. Outside of a lack of takeaways, the biggest thing that haunted the Packers defense last season was not being productive on money downs: third down, fourth down and in the red zone.

In all three of those categories, the Packers ranked 28th or worse. I know I am not the only one who remembers the Packers routinely stuffing teams on early downs, only to give up third-down conversions, seemingly over and over again.

In reality, teams converted 42.8 percent of their third downs, which ranked 28 in the NFL. Green Bay was also 31st in fourth down conversions allowed, giving up 80 percent of them and 31st in opponent red-zone percentage.

All in all, the Packers weren’t very good when it counted.

Obviously, the personnel had something to do with that. Injuries to guys like Clay Matthews, Nick Perry and Mike Daniels didn’t help, but even with those guys on the field, especially against good quarterbacks, it didn’t seem to matter.

And maybe it was because the Packers emphasized the run too much. The NFL is a passing league and while stopping the run or at least containing it is important, Pettine was right when he said you can lose a game a lot quicker with big pass plays than a team running on you.

Chunk plays tend to come quicker in the passing game, that’s just common sense. So why was Capers obsessed with the run? Well, it’s part of his philosophy and it’s not a bad one. The idea is you force teams into third-and-long by stopping the run, then unleash the blitz.

Unfortunately, it just didn’t work last season. The pass rush didn’t get home often enough and the secondary, battered and bruised, simply couldn’t hold up. Even Damarious Randall, who racked up some interceptions, got toasted in coverage, there just weren’t tons of options.

So, the Packers hired Pettine; signed Tramon Williams and drafted two rookies that fit the system perfectly. Those guys along with Muhammad Wilkerson, Oren Burks, another rookie, plus Kevin King and Josh Jones, should give Green Bay a bevy of options.

And Pettine will find ways to use them all. In the first few days of camp, his defense has performed well in red-zone situations, including a key interception of Rodgers by Blake Martinez Friday.

Martinez will key a part in all of this. His run defense is outstanding, but his pass coverage needs to improve and he also needs to start generating more impact plays. Last season, he had just one interception and one forced fumble. That will need to improve.

But there are more reasons than Martinez to start believing in this defense. It’s early yes, but Pettine is changing things up with three defensive lineman and sometimes three inside linebackers in the nickel defense. He will move pieces around and you can bet, he will be aggressive.

This Packers defense is built to play that way. They can hold up against the run, the interior pass rush and edge rush should be stout, if guys can be healthy and on the backend, Pettine has the talent and athleticism, anyways, to match up with anyone.

Pettine also won’t be so predictable and he will focus on stopping the pass, especially limiting big plays. Those are what have killed the Packers in recent years. Big plays and not getting off the field.

It’s not like the defense needs to be great. Basically, it just needs to hold the opposing team under 20. If it can do that consistently, which is harder than it sounds, Green Bay can beat anyone in 2018 and so far, Pettine and his players seem off to a strong start. .



Chris is a sports journalist from Montana and has been blogging about the Packers since 2011. Chris has been a staff writer for CheeseheadTV since 2017 and looks forward to the day when Aaron Rodgers wins his second Super Bowl. Follow him @thepackersguru

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (29) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

Nick Perry's picture

"It’s hard to explain it, but with Mike Pettine running the defense, it just has a different feel."

LOL....Not that hard Chris. That "Different Feel" is for the last several years we talked ourselves into thinking the defense would be better than the year before under Capers. EVERY Summer we hoped it would be different come September but we all KNEW deep down it wouldn't be a damn bit different. I'm probably more guilty of this than anyone, always hoping but never really believing. The Green and Gold shades were on tight!

This year IS different though. A new GM went out and signed some nice pieces to go with the handful of talented defensive players the Packers had already. Then Gutekunst went out and had one of the best draft classes IMO the Packers have had in years. But the REAL kicker is I know the Packers won't be trying to stop opposing offenses with a defense offenses had learned how to beat.

I KNOW the Packers won't go to that "Soft Zone" with the game on the line. I know for the first time in YEARS the Packers will have a defense that will play to each players strength. No more square pegs in round holes under Pettine. The Packers defense might not be the 85 Bears or even the 2010 Packers, but I know it won't be the Packers defense of 2011 through 2017 either.

Chris Peterson's picture

Guess you are right. Not that hard. Lol. I am really excited about his philosophy and the Packers personnel. Naturely, a good team against the run even Tramon previously and King last year showed good ability to tackle in the run game. So the run def will he a strength and with his emphasis on the pass and mixing things up, plus the rookie DB and Mo, I feel pretty good.

Nick Perry's picture

Just kidding around a little this morning. I'm right there with you and am really excited about Pettine and the possibilities for this defense. Kevin King replacing House already as a starter is no surprise but great news nonetheless. I also been listening to a podcast "Locked On Packers" that's been really great. The host said he's noticed Wilkerson taking snaps at DE which IMO just might be his best position.

Pettines defenses work because he takes whatever a player does best and works it into his scheme. He even looks a bit like a mad scientist mixing up his schemes to get the most out of his guys. Cant wait!!!

The TKstinator's picture

Also very eager to see the D under Pettine. One lineman, two linemen, three linemen, etc, all that stuff is fun but it was Pettine himself who said very loudly that HOW they play is more important than WHAT they play.

I might be very wrong (gasp) but my belief is that with the hours and hours these coaches put in analyzing tendencies, formations, personnel, and fortnite dance moves, a team really cannot “scheme” or “trick/surprise/fool/deceive” their way to consistent success. Give me Deion locking up your #1 receiver and Lawrence Taylor rushing your QB and I’d bet on being successful more often than not, regardless of how I line them up.

Another thing: absolutely I want to see big plays limited. But to do that WITHOUT any “soft zone”? I think we all hate soft zone BUT isn’t its (only) strength the ability to limit big plays? Eager to see what “limiting big plays” looks like. You better have some good cover men and a strong pass rush, otherwise what is the result when the blitz doesn’t get home and that weak cover man is 1 on 1with Odell, or Julio, or Antonio, etc?

Not trying to be negative, just looking forward to see it all play out!

Demon's picture

If I am a Head coach interviewing potential defensive coordinators for a position. If this guy has a single play in his playbook where only 2 men rush the passer,or where a CB lines up 10 yards off the line of scrimmage on a 3rd and 2. The interview is over immediatly. Next applicant please

Nick Perry's picture

"or where a CB lines up 10 yards off the line of scrimmage on a 3rd and 2. The interview is over immediately. Next applicant please.

I have to admit I got a nice chuckle from this.

Hawg Hanner's picture

The interesting question is to what extent Caper's scheme caused the poor performance over personnel. I'd like to see an analysis of big gains and see
if the Dback or LB blew their assignments or were faked vs exploit type plays

dobber's picture

An influx of speed in the back 7, emerging players and a solid FA signing up front. There's a lot to like here, or at least to like more than in past years, and enough youth to believe it's something that will grow and evolve. Get your best players on the field and put them in positions to be successful. It's an oversimplification, but isn't it what the game ultimately breaks down to?

Turophile's picture

Even if you accept that the rookie CBs and ILB Burks (the first three draft picks this year), will make their mistakes, you can still get excited about some second year players, most of whom were injured last year

The super-quick (4.41 40 time) and aggressive Josh Jones is back, and concentrating on playing safety. He was fit last year, but spent much of his time learning ILB stuff, and suffered from information overload.

Biegel is now healthy after a long rehab from his foot injury (which has a tendency to re-occur, if not given proper time to heal), and I hope some of the pre-draft hype that had him as being close in ability to Wisconsin partner T.J.Watt, is true.

Then there is Montravius Adams, also healthy this year, who has loads of ability (very strong and pretty quick as well), so now we have a chance to see that on the field.

Let's also not forget that Kevin King now has a seasons experience, and has had that troublesome shoulder fixed. Hopefuly the double-digit dislocations last year are a thing of the past.

So the Packers finally have the top four 2017 draft picks fit (and you hope they can all step up with a year of learning), plus whatever this years rooks give us. Taken all together, that's a massive boost to the defense, and I didn't even include Gilbert in the young up and comers - he should be there too.

If Pettine's system allows these young guys to fly to the ball without overthinking their reponsibilities, this could be a really good defense. Let's face it, the Packers have invested very heavily in drafting to make their 'D' better, it's time for that commitment to pay off.

I think the Packers are on the up again. With more emphasis on boosting the offense side next year, they can climb higher still.

Branden Burke's picture

I would like to see Josh Jones step up, but it sounds like he has started the year on the 2nd team. He has potential, but his problems have all been mental.

Turophile's picture

Branden Burke.
Brice is a 3rd year player, Clinton-Dix a 5th, while JJ is a second year guy. The beginning of training camp routinely has the vets starting above the younger players, who have to earn a promotion up the depth chart. Also Brice has looked good, so promotion is not an easily earned thing. I agree any improvement for Jones will be mostly mental, in his understanding of the position.

It may be that J.J. stays at no.3 for a while, we'll see, but I'm betting he still gets plenty of action.

You will have to wait at least a few weeks to see a true talent comparison.

Guam's picture

I am excited too, but also have some Grinch-like concerns. With so many new parts on defense, I have believed for some time that 2019 will be a better year than 2018. I believe the defense will improve over the course of the 2018 season and be solid by year end, but we will also lose some early games to inexperience and unfamiliarity.

Maybe Rogers and Company will be good enough to carry the team through the early season, but I only see a return to the playoffs this year and a Super Bowl run happening next year.

dobber's picture

"I believe the defense will improve over the course of the 2018 season and be solid by year end,"

I think you're spot on: we'll need to be patient with this group as the personnel get comfortable together and learn their roles. I think the immediate results we'll see will be in a defense that will likely play faster and more aggressively than in the past (which wouldn't be hard). That should, by itself, mean better results than what we've seen the last couple years. They should be playing their best ball in December and January.

Lare's picture

I agree 100% Guam. I'm excited about all the changes and additions to the team, but I just think it's going to take another year or so for everything to gel and allow Gutekunst more time to get rid of the mediocrity on the roster.

It's tough to succeed when you're relying on unreliable players (Matthews, Perry, HHCD, Fackrell, etc.) for your success.

KnockTheSnotOutOfYou's picture

Apologize but on elliptical making response difficult.

Why so many playing the 2019 card?

Look up Packers record when Rodgers went down last year. Everyone seems convinced Capers was the weak link along with Thompson. New DC, new OC, new General Manager. Seemingly good draft choices and FA signings to go with returning healthy players.

Too many hedging bets! Get real...the Pack is for real with just as good of chance of winning SB as any other team in the NFL in 2018. The same will be true in 2018.

4thand10's picture

I’m not going to hedge. I’ll say it now. Green Bay’s defense will be better this year than last year.

Since '61's picture

I am both hopeful and frustrated to see this article. For years many of us here have posted that the Packers defense needs to improve on 3rd down and in the red zone. Now finally Pettine is bringing focus to these issues with the defense.

I'm looking forward to the Packers defense finally making stops when it matters. Week 2 against the Vikings will be a critical test for Pettine's defense. Also, seeing how the defense plays on the road against good QBs, e.g., New England.

It may take some time for this defense to come together but if they stay healthy they could be effective in time for a playoff run. the author is correct, they don't need to be a great defense, just good enough to give Rodgers and the offense a chance to build a lead and for the defense to hold it.

Speaking for myself it would be nice to see some solid defensive play again. Thanks, Since '61

Bure9620's picture

I agree, but I think the pundits are over valuing Minnesota's offense this year. How often do we see a team with a brand new QB and new OC click right away?? Also their O-line does not really impress me either and Cousins has really stuggled with pressure. Keenum was able to avade rushes and move in the pocket a bit, one thing he is better at than Kirk Cousins. Minnesota's offense will struggle early especially on the road.

kevgk's picture

Oh yeah, the Vikings will start 2-2 and be quickly forgotten when the hot new NFC teams start out strong.

KnockTheSnotOutOfYou's picture

An unknown is how much better their running game is this year with their first round RB being healthy. go along with Cousins

dobber's picture

A lot broke right for that Minnesota offense in 2017. The loss of Dalvin Cook was the only real negative, and they ended up with good combo seasons out of McKinnon and Murray and an out-of-his-head season from Thielen. The OL stayed mostly healthy. It's been said by many here before, that Keenum played about as well as you could ask a QB to play in that offense last season, and it doesn't seem likely that Cousins--or just about any other QB--will walk on the field and outplay him in 2018. A regression here seems likely.

Demon's picture

Because of how bad the D has been for years it would be nice to see solid dehense played. I hope im not being unrealistic or too greedy when i say it would be nice to see a stifeling/smothering D. One where receivers fight to get off the line. Where every catch is contested. If the receiver goes over the middle,he gets hit hard enough that he doesnt want to do it again. Gang tackling, QB's running for their life.

Thats the D I'd like to see. I only hope with the NFL rule changes those days arent a thing of the past.

stockholder's picture

The different feel is the depth. Capers defense was Mathews, Perry and Peppers. If Pettine's defense gives us more, WE win. If the secondary does not shut-down Air attacks, We lose. It's that simple. The NFL is a Passing game now. Running is only for controlling the clock. The secondary must learn fast. I don't see Williams and House as the future. King and Alexander must show they are. Can Dix be Collins? We need more INTs from are safeties. And that will be how this defense can show it's superiority. The superiority to win another super-bowl. INTs Stop the Offensive shootouts. Play the game changers. The packers have hitters. But no one is making the impact of "Game Changer". Game changer is the fear of every great defense. The air in Green Bay changed. The secondary is the wind of change. And the coaches job will be to make this secondary legendary. So the challenge must be put on Dix and Jones. Every INT./break-up is a step in the right direction. The right direction for the whole DEFENSE. The more the pressure, the more the opponent mistakes. THE TIME IS NOW! It's Time the packers have more than A-ROD, Mathews and Perry.

Tarynfor12's picture

No offense to the writer but we hear and read how everything is different every camp....even when no changes were made in staff., when staff were promoted with high praise, for adding nutrition bars during breaks, the grasping of bricks,different music played etc,etc.

Someone really needs to do something horrible to allow for a negative in camp.

Everyone speaks highly of everyone and how great they are, going to be, and were. Then after reading how great a camp some one and others have, we're left scratching our heads over who got cut, who isn't starting and one side of the ball looks as though they never had camp.

Thanks for writing but lets be a little more realistic, no camp is peachy but offers nothing but if's and more of what fans have been doing to much of...hoping without results.

Anything of value that changes this teams will be witnessed starting game one and so on and the in game adjustments and practices that keep it tuned.

Thanks for writing though and look forward to next update of all is well.

Qoojo's picture

The two biggest weaknesses of Capers' D was miscommunication and failure to apply pressure to passer. It sounds like Pettine's D will correct the miscommunication due to simplification and possibly better teaching.

The pass rush, you don't know until you see how they do. You have to think that the DBs are upgraded, and that it might give the pass rush a bit more time to apply pressure. But I don't see a dramatic change in the same DL/LB guys suddenly beating their opponents and applying quick pressure.

At least we won't see Capers' zone D this year, which was more like watching pregame pitch-and-catch between QB and WR.

A Pickled Packer's picture

After reading about Rodgers commenting on Pettine's pre camp speech as epic, one for the books and the best he's ever heard, it left me with goosebumps thinking of the possibility of having a great defense again. It's been so long I forgot what one looks like.

billybobton's picture

When a purported packer writer writes "even RANDAL was toasted" inferring that RANDAL was anything except toasted it is time to stop reading. No other CB or slot on the packers had even half the S (mostly haha) over the top protecting him.

Getting rid of randall was an exceptional move and will put a real player on the field and let our S go back to playing S instead of babysitter. watch some tape before writing. Start with Seattle

Chuck Farley's picture

If I was an opposing coach, knowing how poorly the pack pass d has been over the past several years, would come out passing and keep passing until they could stop it.

The old philosophy that the run if successful sets up the pass is no longer. This is a passing game first and a run game to get that yard or two for a first down.

I still beleive teams who come out passing will do well against them until they figure it out and get the talent to stop it. They may or may not have that yet? who knows

DD's picture

I like Pettines style. Be aggressive and play your man!! Should be interesting and not holding our collective breath on third down! Can't wait to see.

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