GREEN BAY – It's the balancing act that'll decide where the Packers' defense goes from here.
How does defensive coordinator Mike Pettine give the attention required to the egregious breakdowns against the run in San Francisco that cost the Packers so dearly in the NFC title game last January, but still keep the unit's focus sufficiently forward to move on and improve in 2020?
The 49ers' 285 rushing yards and just eight pass attempts jumped off the stat sheet four months ago and still do. It's Pettine's job to use that performance, which he called "beyond disappointing" and the defense's "worst game at the worst time" as a teaching tool, reminder and motivator, all while continuing to build on everything else that helped get the Packers to the brink of the Super Bowl.
"We own it. We're not running away from it," Pettine said in a half-hour virtual news conference Friday with the local media corps, a portion of which reviewed last season's final game.
"It was a tough pill to swallow. You're always remembered by your last performance, and I hate for it to tarnish what we were able to accomplish during the year when we won 14 games. We're not going to do that and let it be this dark cloud hanging over us, but at the same time it's not going to be something we sweep under the carpet. We'll address it, and we'll do it again when the players are in town and it's face to face."
Pettine didn't sugarcoat it, conceding his unit was beaten in every aspect – "scheme, effort, energy, technique" – with the conference title at stake.
What he would not concede, though, is that the answer will be to turn the defensive front into a two-gapping, laterally moving group that doesn't attack up the field.
That approach would take away a lot of what produced 25 takeaways and 41 sacks – plus five more sacks in the playoff victory over Seattle.
He stressed he'll still be striving for "knock-back" at the line of scrimmage, maintaining an aggressive mentality that requires defenders off the ball to read and react effectively.
"The formula of the defense we played last year, we won 14 games," Pettine said. "That's a really good thing. So we're not going to junk our approach over the last game. But we also know we'd be fools to ignore it."
So if improvement isn't going to come from a major overhaul of X's and O's, it'll come from the personnel, and Pettine sees significant strides being made at several spots, starting with last year's first two draft picks.
Outside linebacker Rashan Gary is in line for a much larger role behind, or perhaps alongside, Za'Darius and Preston Smith. In reviewing last year's film, Pettine felt one of Gary's strengths was setting the edge in the run game. He also believes Gary can rush the passer from an interior position, much like Za'Darius Smith did late in the year.
Those attributes could take some of the workload off the Smiths, and keep everyone fresher for the long haul, as Gary's game continues to grow.
"I do think at times Preston and 'Z' probably played a little too much, and we do want to take some off their plate," Pettine said. "Rashan is certainly built to handle giving those guys a break."
Meanwhile, last year's other first-round pick, safety Darnell Savage, played considerably more than Gary as a rookie, and Pettine saw him steadily make both the physical and mental adjustment to the speed of the game.
Savage also learned from some "rookie hiccups," and Pettine is counting on him having a stronger presence next to veteran safety Adrian Amos in his second year.
"I think the sky's the limit for Darnell," Pettine said. "He has big expectations of himself and those match the expectations we have for him."
Also, 2019 sixth-round defensive lineman Kingsley Keke came in "very raw" but flashed positive signs late in the year. Much like Gary with the Smiths, Pettine sees Keke expanding the rotation up front and easing some of the burden on Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry and Tyler Lancaster.
Last but not least, while the Packers are replacing the linebacker in the center of it all, Blake Martinez, they're doing so with Christian Kirksey, who's very familiar with Pettine's system from their time together in Cleveland (2014-15).
Kirksey has a "head start" not many players get when joining a new team, which will prove beneficial with the offseason program limited to virtual meetings due to the pandemic.
"It is a good feeling to know given our circumstances, that we're not going to have a ton of on the field time, the unit that we're going to trot out there on Day 1 is going to be guys that are all very experienced in the system," Pettine said.
Except for Kirksey, that experience also includes what happened in San Francisco. Using it the right way will chart the defense's next course.
"It's certainly been a focal point," Pettine said. "We're not dwelling on it, but it's something we know if we want to take the next step …
"We were a game away, but that was a big step, and they present a big hurdle. If we want to take it, there's a lot we need to get done between now and then."