GREEN BAY – Mike Pettine relocated to the sideline with his rookie linebacker in mind during his first and only season as the Buffalo Bills’ defensive coordinator in 2013.
It went against every perceived advantage Pettine felt he had working from the press box during his four years with Rex Ryan and the New York Jets, but he deemed it necessary to help relay calls to rookie second-round pick Kiko Alonso.
At the time, the NFL didn’t allow coordinators to send in plays directly to the player wearing the communication helmet on the field, so a middle man was required. As is his mentality, Pettine wanted to simplify things with an abundance of offenses going up-tempo that season.
He felt his presence on the sideline would accomplish that goal and the results suggest it was an overwhelming success. Alonso had 159 tackles and four interceptions for a Bills defense that jumped from 22nd to 10th in total yards allowed under Pettine’s tutelage.
Yet, Pettine still looks back at that year with some mixed feelings. In his mind, that season reinforced why a defensive play-caller’s best work is performed in the press box.
“I found in Buffalo when I called it from the sideline in 2013 that I felt like I was shooting from the hip a little too much,” Pettine said. “And regretted, 'Oh wow, I wish I thought of that,' whereas at least now I can look at the call sheet, cross out what I've called. That's difficult to do when you're down on the sideline.”
For that reason, the Packers’ new defensive coordinator confirmed to reporters last week he plans to call games from the press box this season. He feels the aerial view allows him to properly make calls and adjustments throughout the course of a game.
While Pettine is again working with two young inside linebackers, third-year veteran Blake Martinez and rookie third-round pick Oren Burks, he now can speak directly into the communication helmet.
“I'm an information guy. I'll have a lot of information spread out in front of me,” Pettine said. “When you're on the sideline, you're usually limited to kind of what you're carrying, and I don't want to be that guy that looks like he's flipping through a Cheesecake Factory menu while I'm looking for stuff on defense. So I spread out a lot of stuff. I like to study in between series.”
Both Martinez and Burks enjoyed working with Pettine this summer, picking up on his tendencies and learning what’s expected when he makes checks.
Martinez got his first taste of running Pettine’s defense last Thursday when he played the first 13 defensive snaps before handing the communication helmet to Burks, who led the defense with 41 defensive snaps against the Titans.
It’s not a new phenomenon for Martinez, who wore the helmet in Dom Capers’ defense during the second half of last season. However, he can see why Pettine’s viewpoint is so important to winning the pre-snap battle at the line of scrimmage.
“It allows him to see the whole field and what offenses are trying to do in those situations, whatever it is – first-and-10, second-and-long,” said Martinez, who was second in the NFL with 142 tackles last season. “He can see things that we can’t see initially and it allows us to get a head start before the play.”
Pettine kept things pretty close to the vest in his first preseason game as the Packers’ defensive coordinator, which is to be expected. On the practice field, however, players are buying into what Pettine is selling with his scheme and philosophy.
Two veterans with experience in his system, defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson (New York, 2011-12) and cornerback Tramon Williams (Cleveland, 2014-15), say it’s not too far a deviation from what he’s done in the past – simple, yet unpredictable.
“Everybody on the defense knows Mike Pettine’s defense – be physical,” Wilkerson said. “It’s pretty much the same (as New York). After the first install, I picked it up and knew where we were going to go from there.
“For me, it’s pretty much the second time around – it’s cool. I get it. The other defenders are picking it up. That’s a good thing. You may think guys get into a new system and are hesitant and might not learn as fast, but guys are picking it up.”
Pettine is confident in the chain of command the Packers have established with assistant coaches on the sideline to make corrections between series. If Pettine needs to talk to a player directly, he’s only a quick phone call away.
“Being up top and kind of being in that quieter atmosphere where there's less emotion … I just think the positives from that outweigh the ability to be down on the field,” Pettine said. “I think the guys will be happy I'm in the booth. I can be a bit of a hot-blooded Italian every now and again. I think they'd rather me (be) upstairs than ranting and raving on the sideline.”