GREEN BAY – While the Packers’ coaching staff begins establishing its vision for 2018, two clear goals already have been outlined under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.
To streamline communication and win the pre-snap battle.
Pettine, who presided over a top-10 defense in each of his five seasons as an NFL defensive coordinator, preaches pass defense. After all, he cautions, breakdowns and big plays are the fastest way for a defense to get beat.
Joe Whitt couldn’t agree more. As Green Bay’s cornerbacks coach for eight seasons, Whitt frequently talked about how the performance of a team’s quarterback and cornerbacks directly correlates to its Super Bowl chances.
Before Head Coach Mike McCarthy tabbed Pettine for defensive coordinator, Whitt put himself into the conversation for the job through his work with the likes of Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, Al Harris and Sam Shields.
While admittedly disappointed to not get the post, Whitt agreed to remain on staff after sitting down with Pettine and comparing defensive philosophies with the new coordinator.
“What I wanted to run and what he was running were very, very similar,” Whitt said. “Conceptually, how we see defensive football and how we wanted to defend the top quarterbacks and how we wanted to do those types of things, very similar. There's not going to be much of a learning curve in that way because we see football the same way.”
Having impressed McCarthy in the interview process, Whitt was promoted to defensive pass game coordinator, where he’ll be responsible for bringing the secondary and linebackers together to improve coverage communication, an area of emphasis coming out of last season.
The main idea behind Whitt’s new role is to lead with “one voice” as it relates to laying out the game plan for the pass defense. Instead of splitting into separate rooms, the secondary will remain together in a majority of its meetings.
“I’m excited to work with Joe Whitt,” said Pettine in his introductory news conference. “I’ve heard great things about Joe from afar and they certainly have been very true from the get-go. (He’s) very knowledgeable, not just in the coverage part but also in the technique piece, the teaching part of it and also just defense in general.”
The Packers also shifted longtime assistant Jason Simmons to secondary coach. Simmons, along with incoming defensive quality control coach Ryan Downard, will assist Whitt after this week’s announcement that safeties coach Darren Perry has chosen to pursue other opportunities.
Simmons previously worked with Whitt and Perry as a coaching administrator and defensive assistant from 2011-14 before joining coordinator Ron Zook on special teams the past two seasons.
A safety by trade, Simmons played 10 seasons in the NFL after entering the league as a fifth-round pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1998.
“Jason's a really good coach,” Whitt said. “A lot of you guys don't know him. He's worked in the secondary with us since 2011 when he got here. He's done certain assignments. He's led the room at times. He's going to do a great job in the secondary with us.”
Their task will be to help reignite a pass defense recently besieged by injuries and inconsistency. After finishing sixth in pass defense in 2014, the Packers have finished 23rd and 31st in the category the past two seasons.
Green Bay got off to a strong start in 2017, ranked sixth in the NFL through five weeks, before injuries slowly took their toll on the secondary.
Versatile safety Morgan Burnett (quad), veteran Davon House (quad), dime safety Kentrell Brice (ankle), rookie second-round pick Kevin King (shoulder), and 2015 draft picks Damarious Randall (hand/knee) and Quinten Rollins (Achilles) combined to miss 37 games, with King, Brice and Rollins finishing the year on injured reserve.
Another prospect, converted receiver Herb Waters, was lost for the season early in training camp with a shoulder injury. He’s hopeful to be ready for OTAs.
“That’s the first thing we have to do is get healthy,” Whitt said. “I’m looking at OTAs, Kevin is coming off of surgery, Damarious is coming off of surgery, Quinten is coming off of surgery, Herb is coming off of surgery. Hopefully, we can get guys healthy and add a couple pieces. I think we have the core pieces that we can be a good secondary and a good defense – not just secondary.
“We can be a good defense by staying healthy and making sure as coaches we streamline everything for the players so they’re not thinking. We take doubt out of the equation and they’re going to play fast.”
The silver lining is the injuries required several young defensive backs to see significant playing time last season, including undrafted finds Josh Hawkins and Lenzy Pipkins. Rookie second-round pick Josh Jones played more than 700 defensive snaps and made seven starts.
While Burnett will be an unrestricted free agent in March, the Packers are set to return former Pro Bowl safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix after picking up his fifth-year option last offseason.
“There’s a wealth of talent and we have a lot of young guys who got a lot of reps last year,” Simmons said. “I know we were ravaged with a lot of injuries and a lot of young guys played. That’s something we’re going to be able to lean on moving forward. The thing is guys have more experience, which will allow you to play fast.”
Whitt still has aspirations to be a defensive coordinator but is energized by the opportunity before him. It’s his expectation to get the Packers’ pass defense on the same page with one voice setting the agenda for coverages.
“Mike (McCarthy) understands what I am,” Whitt said. “I've coached for him for a long time. I just appreciate this opportunity to help us win in 2018 and get to that Super Bowl. That's the only thing that matters right now.”