5 pressing issues facing Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine
GREEN BAY - If selecting Mike Pettine as the new defensive coordinator of the Green Bay Packers yields initial results on par with those of Dom Capers, who was dismissed from the position Jan. 1, coach Mike McCarthy will be a very popular man.
For all of the deterioration his defenses experienced, Capers transformed the Packers in radical fashion upon his arrival in 2009. His first group finished second in total defense, first in rushing defense, fifth in passing defense, second in opposing quarterback passer rating and led the league in interceptions. His second group finished fifth in total defense, fifth in passing defense, second in interceptions, second in points and led the league in opposing quarterback passer rating.
Oh, and the Packers won the Super Bowl in his second year, too.
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It would be difficult for any coordinator to replicate the early success of Capers, let alone surpass it, but such is the challenge facing Pettine, a former head coach with the Cleveland Browns and two-time defensive coordinator with the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets. The good news is the Packers hardly could be worse than they were this season, when Capers’ troops finished 31st in opposing quarterback passer rating, 30th in opposing quarterback completion percentage, 23rd in passing defense and 26th in points.
Here are five issues Pettine must address next season:
1. Reinforce zone coverage
The Packers fancy themselves as an aggressive defense relying primarily on press-man coverage. Cornerbacks line up across from wide receivers, battle within the first five yards and attempt to win each route with good technique and active hands. But Capers acknowledged the Packers were forced to play more zone in 2017 as injuries besieged the secondary: Rookie Kevin King was in and out of the lineup with a nagging shoulder problem; Davon House missed games with quad, shoulder and back injuries; Quinten Rollins tore his Achilles before the midway point of the year; Morgan Burnett had groin and hamstring issues — you get the idea. Switching from man to zone took more pressure off individual defenders but heightened the emphasis on communication and assignment football, both of which proved disastrous for the Packers. Inside linebackers Blake Martinez and Jake Ryan appeared lost at times as receivers darted in and out of their respective zones. Cornerbacks and safeties had problems passing off routes as quarterbacks capitalized on open windows. There were even times when players had trouble lining up before the snap. Pettine and his assistants must improve zone principles if the Packers wish to vary their coverages next season.
2. Find a spot for Josh Jones
When it comes to pure explosiveness, nobody on the Packers’ roster can match the physical gifts of Josh Jones, a second-round pick last spring. He looked the part from his very first day of rookie camp, when a rare combination of size, speed and fearlessness caught the eyes of coaches and teammates alike. Jones played a number of different positions this season as injuries to Burnett and Kentrell Brice afforded him a significant number of snaps, and the prevailing opinion was that Jones’ performance suffered the further away from the line of scrimmage he got. In other words, Jones thrived when he lined up in the box as a safety or inside linebacker, slicing into the backfield and serving as a force of disruption. But he had major issues in coverage when Capers asked him to play center field, with receivers running loose and his eyes fixated in the backfield. Given Burnett’s uncertain future — he is set to become a free agent in March — the Packers could shift Jones to a more forward role at inside linebacker if general manager Brian Gutekunst chooses to proceed without the most veteran member of the secondary. This would allow Brice to reclaim his safety role alongside Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the nitro package, assuming Pettine uses such a formation next year. Either way, the Packers need to capitalize on Jones’ raw abilities without compromising their coverage on the back end.
3. Experiment with Kyler Fackrell
You’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger punching bag among fans than Fackrell, an outside linebacker who was a third-round pick in 2016. His 5 sacks and 6 tackles for loss in two seasons have been largely underwhelming as a rotational rusher behind starters Clay Matthews and Nick Perry. It’s possible, though, that Fackrell could be among the biggest beneficiaries of Pettine’s hybrid scheme, which fluctuates between 3-4 and 4-3 alignments on a whim. As a true edge rusher, Fackrell’s lean frame and general lack of strength were major impediments against hulking tackles who tossed him aside with relative ease. But Fackrell has terrific speed (4.65 seconds in the 40-yard dash) and is described by coaches as an extremely smart player (32 on the Wonderlic), both of which could lend themselves to more effectiveness as a 4-3 linebacker. A trio of Fackrell, Blake Martinez and Jake Ryan would give the Packers a solid blend of speed, smarts and run stoppers whenever Pettine changes fronts. Fackrell may never become an elite pass rusher, but Pettine should experiment to find different ways to use him before his rookie contract expires.
4. Effective communication
Prior to the 2015 season, Capers made two significant changes to his defense that went largely unnoticed to those outside the locker room. He began by scaling back his playbook to remove a number of concepts and formations that players said were rarely used, and the result was a significant decrease in missed assignments and mental errors during training camp. The second step was even more important: Capers overhauled the language of his defense to simplify pre-snap communication. Plays that used to have six- or seven-word titles — “It takes time to say, 'Eagle Wide Open Me Special Seven,’” Capers said that fall — were reduced to one-word code terms that held different meanings for different units. But, two years later, certain elements of the communicative process crashed and burned, a trend Pettine needs to eradicate as quickly as possible. The Packers had repeated issues with substitutions, pre-snap alignments and general communication as whoever was wearing the headset struggled to relay Capers’ call to the rest of the defensive huddle. With a new scheme yet to be installed, the potential for such mistakes will skyrocket as players adjust to a different set of terms and calls. Pettine must drill communication ad nauseam before the season opener next fall.
5. Restore Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
Aside from his tremendous durability and availability, the most admirable element of Clinton-Dix’s first few years in the league was his consistent improvement year over year. He grew steadily from a rookie who missed far too many tackles to an impactful playmaker with a nose for the football, evidenced by five interceptions and a trip to the Pro Bowl in 2016. He even spoke to the media about wanting to assume a leadership role in the locker room despite his relative youth. But something fractured during the 2017 season, and only Clinton-Dix knows the truth about his puzzling situation. What can only be described as a stunning regression featured everything from small mistakes, like missed tackles and poor angles, to more shocking ones, like an apparent loss of speed and agility coupled with the calamitous experiment of wearing the communication helmet when Burnett was injured. An apathetic performance against the Detroit Lions in the regular-season finale did little to assuage concerns about his future or maturity, especially when Clinton-Dix doubled down and blamed his teammates for the defensive issues all season. Nonetheless, McCarthy offered a surprising endorsement of Clinton-Dix during his season-ending news conference last week, crediting the former first-round pick for having tremendous heart and labeling him a core player on defense. Clinton-Dix is entering the final year of his contract after former general manager Ted Thompson picked up his fifth-year option last spring, and Pettine will be tasked with getting the starting safety back on track.