The Green Bay Packers are in the midst of an uncharacteristic overhaul. Some teams have a high rate of coaching turnover. Most of the time, it’s indicative of an unsuccessful franchise. The Packers organization prides itself on success, tradition, and continuity. When a team like this replaces nearly everyone from the general manager to the water boy, it’s a big story. The fanbase has been especially vocal about change at defensive coordinator for at least two years. Last week, they got their wish. Enter Mike Pettine. Fans have reacted in one of two ways: People are either baffled that the Packers would bring in a fired Cleveland Browns head coach, or they’re waxing poetic about his previous defensive units.
Mike Pettine’s Defense Is a Coordinated Effort
The truth about Green Bay’s latest hire is somewhere in between. Yes, the Browns have toiled in despair for decades. That doesn’t speak to Pettine’s abilities as a coordinator. And yes, he’s produced swarming defenses, but that doesn’t guarantee anything for Green Bay’s future. Pettine has never had the benefits that come with a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers. Coaching with a lead is a distinct advantage he’s rarely enjoyed in the past. That’s cause for excitement going forward.
Pettine is from the Rex Ryan tree, a highly respected one when it comes to team defense. He elevated himself from assistant defensive line coach for the Baltimore Ravens to Ryan’s “right-hand man” in short order. Recounting their meeting, Ryan told ESPN.com “The more I talked to him, I realized ‘Holy cow, this dude knows everything.” The two would go on working together for the next decade.
When Ryan left Baltimore for a head coaching job with the New York Jets, he took his protege along with him. Pettine ran a top-five defense for the Jets for four seasons before taking the defensive coordinator job with the Buffalo Bills in 2013. His defense set a franchise record with 57 sacks and ranked fourth overall that season.
University of Wisconsin alum and former NFL safety Jim Leonhard played six of his ten seasons with Pettine on staff. On a local sports talk show, he was asked what Packers fans should expect. Leonhard said when he thinks of Pettine, two words come to mind: Flexibility and creativity.
According to the Leonhard, “He’ll be flexible to find the most talented playmakers and matchups, week in and week out.” Pettine can identify a player’s best skills, then use his scheme to get them in position to win one-on-one matchups. By all accounts, Pettine’s system is a complicated one. There is concern about the younger players picking it up. After all, one of the knocks on predecessor Dom Capers was scheme complexity. Pettine’s communication skills will help to close the experience gap where comprehension is concerned. According to Leonhard, Pettine expects a lot of his players and he preaches accountability.
Once he’s identified the talented playmakers, Pettine implements creative schemes to put them in position to make plays on a consistent basis. Packers beat writer Jason Wilde asked the new coordinator if he runs a 3-4 or a 4-3 defense. His answer? “Yes. All of the above.” The way Pettine sees it, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between a linebacker standing up versus one in a three-point stance. That said, it’s easy to switch from one to the other when Terrell Suggs or Mario Williams is the player in question. The Packers have solid interior linemen, but they’re short on hybrid edge defenders. This begs the question, with whom will he get creative?
Off-Season Roster Decisions
Whether or not Clay Matthews is on the team next season remains to be seen. He certainly meets the criteria of a versatile, veteran playmaker. Long-time Packers safety Morgan Burnett already has experience playing different positions in sub packages. Burnett has played out his contract in Green Bay. General manager Brian Gutekunst says he’ll be aggressive in free agency, time will tell. Ezekiel Ansah of the Detroit Lions is a free agent, as is hybrid defensive back Lamarcus Joyner from the Los Angeles Rams.
First Round Talent
Green Bay has the 14th pick in the upcoming draft. This is a far better position than they normally find themselves in. Early mock draft projections suggest seven defensive players will be selected in the first 13 picks. Some mocks have the Packers taking Derwin James, a strong safety out of Florida State. James has been described by NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah as big, fast, explosive, and versatile. His versatility and pass rushing ability make him a good fit for a Pettine defense, as he’s been used as an outside linebacker at Florida State. Jeremiah went so far as to compare him to four-time pro bowl safety Kam Chancellor of the Seattle Seahawks. Drafting James would likely mean moving on from Burnett, but it the upside is tremendous if he can reach potential.
Another possible choice in the draft is Marcus Davenport, a defensive end from Texas-San Antonio. Scouts describe him as athletic and multi-dimensional. He can get home from a standing position, and he’s even better with a hand on the ground. At 6’6″ and 250 pounds, Davenport is physically imposing. If Green Bay is looking for a hybrid edge defender, this young man can fill that role. According to Pro Football Focus, Davenport has the highest pressure rate (41.7%) from a three-point stance of all draft eligible FBS edge defenders. His long reach allows him to use a variety of pass rush techniques. Davenport has excelled in run stopping as well.
Big Changes in Green Bay
It’s anyone’s guess what the Packers will ultimately do with their advantageous draft position. One thing that is certain, there will be no shortage of promising young players available when they’re on the clock. The prevailing mood among fans is optimistic for the upcoming season. Things have changed drastically in Green Bay. There will be much speculation in the coming months what this new team will look like, especially on defense.