GREEN BAY – Last year on defense, the buzzword was change. This year, it’s continuity.
New Head Coach Matt LaFleur mentioned it as the primary reason to retain Mike Pettine as coordinator. Pettine brought it up, too, in discussing the big jump he expects his unit to make this year.
Count the players as well among those who not only appreciate, but also are excited about, the continuity Pettine’s return brings to Green Bay’s defense.
In meeting with the media this week for the first time in 2019, defensive lineman Kenny Clark said this week he “badly” wanted Pettine back, and linebacker Blake Martinez said the defense will be “way better off.”
They know what their teammates on the offensive side of the ball will be going through this year with a new playbook, because they dealt with it last year, and any stability the defense can provide through the transition could be invaluable in LaFleur’s first season.
“Being able to go into Year 2, everybody knows what their job is and everybody knows what’s required,” Clark said. “Now it’s just being able to put it all together, come together as a defense, and not really having to go back and forth on stuff because we already know it. Now it’s just trying to perfect the defense and get after it that way.”
Incorporating several new faces into Pettine’s scheme remains a legitimate challenge. Outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, along with safety Adrian Amos, were signed in free agency, and new players are sure to be added in the draft as well.
But asked what one thing will be the biggest difference on the Packers’ defense this year, Clark gave a curious one-word reply: “Experience.”
The answer reflects the buy-in to Pettine’s system for the players who are returning, and the belief in how much more they can accomplish – after climbing in the league rankings from 22nd in 2017 to 18th last year in total yards allowed, 23rd to 12th in passing yards, and 28th to 13th on third down – as they progress to what both Pettine and Martinez have referred to as “graduate level” understanding of the scheme.
Going beyond the “what” and processing all the “why” has begun in meetings this week as offseason workouts started, and the expectation is two-plus months of that focus now will make a difference come this fall.
“Just kind of going through the installs that we’ve gone through this week and diving into it, it’s just so much clearer for me, personally, being able to calls plays that I know, certain formations, (and) know certain things that Pettine’s looking for that I wouldn’t have seen last September,” Martinez said.
“Understanding the little things … will allow us to be one to two steps quicker, making plays one yard into the backfield instead of two yards down the field.”
That may be a tad ambitious, but the point being made resonates, particularly with a key communicator like Martinez. He relates how this offseason feels to his second pro season, when his knowledge of the previous scheme grew exponentially and he broke out as a reliable, every-down defender.
He’ll have a second-year pro next to him to bring along in fellow inside linebacker Oren Burks, plus a potential draft addition or two. In front of them, Clark says he’s back to full health after sitting out the final three games last year with an elbow injury. He’s looking to rejoin forces with veteran Mike Daniels, who missed the final six games a year ago, plus Northwestern alums Dean Lowry and Tyler Lancaster, who both took major steps forward last season.
One wildcard for the defensive front, in addition to the draft, is the status of veteran Muhammad Wilkerson, who is still recovering from a nasty ankle injury that required surgery and cost him all but the first three games last year. He remains unsigned as a free agent.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ comment about no “grace period” with a new head coach is a mentality the defense was prepared to embrace regardless. Pettine’s return assured that approach.
“Listening to everybody talk and communicate, everybody’s just on top of everything,” Clark said. “That’s good, and that’s what you want to hear and that’s what you want to see. I’m excited about the direction we’re going in, and it just seems like everybody’s pretty much on point with what they need to do.”