‘Sky’s the limit’ for Packers’ young defensive nucleus

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GREEN BAY – Walking to the podium in the Lambeau Field media auditorium on Dec. 27, Mike Pettine didn’t know what the future held leading up to the Packers’ regular-season finale against Detroit.

Pettine, completing his first year as Green Bay’s defensive coordinator, wasn’t sure whether he’d get the chance to finish what he started with a defense that showed signs of promise and unity in the face of injuries throughout the 2018 season.

While Pettine carefully conditioned every statement he made about his plans with an acknowledgment of all the factors out of his control, there was one obvious underlying message to what marked his final news conference of the year.

The 52-year-old coach had unfinished business with the Packers.

“Everything is being built essentially from scratch,” Pettine said. “And you already start Year 2 well ahead of where you would have been in Year 1. So of course, naturally, most people would want to feel like, ‘Hey, I started something, I want to finish it.’”

Now, Pettine has been granted that opportunity.

The Packers announced late last week Pettine will return for a second season as defensive coordinator following a meeting with new Head Coach Matt LaFleur.

The return of Pettine is the first domino in a series of many that will define Green Bay’s offseason. While there is a coaching staff to be finalized and decisions to be made on pending free agents Clay Matthews and Bashaud Breeland, among others, Pettine and the Packers already have a young nucleus in place on defense.

It starts with their 2016 draft class of Kenny Clark, Kyler Fackrell, Dean Lowry and Blake Martinez, who led the Packers’ defense with 144 tackles for the second consecutive season.

Fackrell, a former third-round pick, made a significant leap in his third NFL season on his way to leading Green Bay with 10½ sacks. With veterans Muhammad Wilkerson (ankle) and Mike Daniels (foot) landing on injured reserve, Clark and Lowry became the face of the Packers’ defensive line down the stretch.

Clark was chosen as a Pro Bowl alternate after setting new career highs in solo tackles (36), sacks (six) and pass deflections (three) before an elbow injury sidelined him for the final three games of the season.

The 23-year-old defensive lineman gave Pettine rave reviews for his personal growth shortly after the season. Looking at the construction of the roster, Clark doesn’t believe the Packers have far to go to re-emerge as contenders.

“A lot of the games were one-score games or games that came down to the wire, where if we make a play here or there, the game is completely different. We have a young nucleus of guys who were a part of that,” Clark said.

“I’m excited about all of us and about our team. Next year, we really just have to come back ready to work and hopefully the injuries, those settle down, we handle our business and make those plays when they count.”

The most recent draft class brought to Green Bay first-round pick Jaire Alexander, who made the PFWA All-Rookie team. Based on his first NFL season, the confident 21-year-old has all the makings of a shutdown cornerback capable of traveling with the NFL’s top receivers.

Alexander was tested in Year 1, going toe-to-toe with Julio Jones, Adam Thielen, Brandin Cooks, Robbie Anderson and future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald. It mirrored the same trial by fire Kevin King went through during his rookie year in 2017.

Soft-tissue issues limited to King to only six games, while Alexander missed three contests due to a groin injury. Alexander believes the tandem has the necessary playmaking potential to help the defense improve upon its 15 takeaways in 2018. 

“I’m telling you we have a bunch of guys,” Alexander said. “If we keep getting that pressure on the quarterback, the ball is going to come out and we’re going to get picks, and the sky’s the limit from there.”

After his two-year sabbatical, Pettine mentioned several times throughout the season how much he’s enjoyed his return to coaching.

The season was a challenge. To this day, there are calls and decisions Pettine laments. Ultimately, however, the 2018 season validated Pettine’s choice to mount a comeback.

With another offseason and incoming draft class to pull from, Pettine should have ample resources to take another step with the Packers’ defense in 2019.

“Just from a personal standpoint, just the year this has been, getting back in, and the enjoyment being around the players, … being around the coaching staff, building a plan, going out and practicing it, teaching it, implementing it … it's what I love to do,” Pettine said, “and I don't know if I necessarily see that changing anytime soon.”

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