GREEN BAY – Mike Pettine said as the 2018 season wrapped up that he was definitely interested in finishing what he started with the Packers’ defense.
Now that he’s getting the opportunity to do so, his expectations are on the rise.
“Take a big jump” was the quick answer to his vision for Green Bay’s defense in 2019, but he has reasons for believing it’s not just idle talk.
For one, players are naturally more comfortable in the second year of a system. Also, Pettine’s defensive staff will be a healthy mixture of holdovers who taught the scheme last year and new faces with experience teaching it elsewhere. And last but not least, a little luck in the injury department could go a long way.
“We spent a lot of time last year with having to shuffle in a lot of different players,” Pettine said on Monday, speaking with the media for the first time since being officially retained as defensive coordinator under new Head Coach Matt LaFleur. “In Year 1 of a system, it’s really hard to get into the graduate level details of the jobs.
“Going through the end-of-year (film) cut-ups you come to the realization we spent so much more time last year on coaching players on what to do and not enough time on how to do it.”
Still, Pettine helped push the Packers up into at least the middle third of the league rankings in some important statistical categories, including yards allowed (18th), passing yards allowed (12th) and third-down percentage (13th), all significant jumps from the prior year when Green Bay ranked 22nd, 23rd, and 28th in those areas, respectively.
In addition, while the Packers ended a disappointing 22nd in points allowed, that was still a climb of four spots in the league rankings.
The progress must continue for the defense to hold up its end in returning the Packers to the playoffs, and Pettine believes the table has been set for that to occur.
“We’re looking forward to having guys that are experienced in the system,” he said.
“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 back to Year 1. You have a little bit of momentum and you’ve built a pretty solid foundation with the guys you’re going to have back.
There are some question marks in that regard, with veterans like Clay Matthews and Muhammad Wilkerson pending free agents and Nick Perry coming off another injury-riddled season.
By the end of 2018, the Packers’ primary defensive linemen were all on injured reserve, and the safety position was being manned by some players who weren’t in the team’s plans when the season began.
All the circumstances certainly put Pettine and his system to the test, and for the most part Green Bay’s defense kept the team in games, even against some of the league’s elite clubs, including Super Bowl participants Los Angeles and New England.
On the positive side, defensive linemen Dean Lowry and Tyler Lancaster emerged as reliable contributors, outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell turned in a double-digit sack season, and first-round draft pick Jaire Alexander quickly established himself as a mainstay at cornerback potentially for years to come.
For 2019, Pettine seems to appreciate that he’ll have a combination of holdovers and new arrivals on the coaching staff. Defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery and defensive backs coach Jason Simmons (along with Ryan Downard being promoted to Simmons’ assistant in the secondary) should all have the same second-year comfort level as the players they’re coaching.
In addition, inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti is a longtime defensive assistant in the NFL who has spent the bulk of the last dozen years coaching linebackers, while outside linebackers coach Mike Smith had Pettine as his position coach while playing for the Ravens a little over a decade ago and coached with him in New York on the Jets’ staff where Pettine also served as defensive coordinator.
“Mike Smith was a guy that I had essentially pushed for, and to have that knowledge base in the outside linebacker room is going to be helpful,” Pettine said. “We feel really good about where we are now as a staff. We feel like we’re so much further ahead now than we were a year ago.”
That’s exactly what Pettine was hoping he’d be saying, provided he stayed in Green Bay, and for him the hiring of LaFleur as the head coach made it an easy call. Pettine joked that he and LaFleur “are one degree of separation with about 20 people,” including LaFleur’s brother Mike, whom Pettine hired as a coaching intern in Cleveland in 2014.
This is where Pettine wanted to be, with the Packers’ defense, to pick up where he left off and see it through. He also gives LaFleur a former head coach at the top of his staff to use as a sounding board and advisor when necessary.
By all accounts it’s the right fit. Now it’s up to Pettine to produce the right results.
“There’s a lot of common ground with us,” Pettine said. “There’s a shared philosophy for how to do things and what we’re looking for in players.
“We’re looking forward to getting the guys in here and get rolling.”