At Whitt's end: Fixing porous pass defense a top priority for Packers

Ryan Wood
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers assistant coach Joe Whitt Jr. has been promoted to pass-game coordinator on defense.

GREEN BAY – When they finally met, the trusted assistant coach and the newcomer who got the top job, there was an instant “feeling-each-other-out” conversation. Joe Whitt Jr. wanted to get to know Mike Pettine, wanted to see if their defensive philosophies meshed.

So they whipped out their interview books, the plays and concepts they pitched when speaking with coach Mike McCarthy about the Green Bay Packers' defensive coordinator opening, and went through them one by one.

Whitt didn’t expect what the comparisons would reveal.

“When we put our books together,” he said, “very, very similar. And I was actually surprised how similar it was. So that’s made the transition really easy, because we see football the same way, and understanding that we have to defend the pass game and how to defend it.”

Initially, at least, it couldn’t have been easy for Whitt to stay with the Packers.

When McCarthy called to inform him that he didn’t get the coordinator job, Whitt admitted disappointment. He has worked on McCarthy’s staff for a decade, first joining as a defensive quality control coach in 2008. He was promoted to cornerbacks coach one year later, and has been among the Packers' most respected assistants ever since. In Pettine, McCarthy hired someone he said he barely knew until interviewing.

But McCarthy emphasized he was impressed with Whitt.

“Joe Whitt did an outstanding job in his interview,” McCarthy later reiterated publicly. “I thought Joe hit the target on the five components (the interview covered) — I’m not going to get into specifics to that — but I thought Mike really knocked it out of the park.

“I knew early in the process that he was the right man for the job.”

McCarthy’s praise for Whitt, evidently, was more than an attempt to smooth the transition with a coach who remains on the new defensive coordinator’s staff. When McCarthy reshuffled his organizational chart, he promoted Whitt to pass-game coordinator on defense, the most prominent role he has held with the Packers. While directly reporting to Pettine, Whitt will have broad influence on how the Packers approach their pass defense.

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It gives Whitt the chance to grow as a coach. He still covets a defensive coordinator job in the NFL, and an expanded role — not to mention more money, presumably — can go a long way toward easing disappointment.

If it works according to McCarthy’s plan, it’s a solution to fix what has been his team’s most damaging weakness in recent seasons. The Packers finished 23rd against the pass during 2017, barely an improvement from their 31st-place finish in 2016. Indeed, they slipped from 26th in opponent passer rating during 2016 to 31st this past season, an even more accurate stat when evaluating pass defense.

With Pettine, Whitt will work under a defensive coordinator who places an appropriate importance on pass defense, given how the game is played now.

“That’s what gets you beat the fastest,” was how Pettine put it when he first spoke publicly last week as the Packers’ defensive coordinator. “I think you still have to be sound against the run, but you lose a heck of a lot faster when you’re giving up chunks in the passing game than you are necessarily in the run game.”

So there’s no ambiguity for Whitt. The tasks his job entails will be highly valued by his new defensive coordinator. What remains to be seen is how well he and Pettine will work together.

Whitt made it clear, both publicly and privately, he has no issue following Pettine’s lead.

“This is Mike’s defense,” Whitt said. “A hundred percent Mike’s defense. We had a conversation (last week), I wanted to put in something simple, and he said, ‘Joe, why are you asking me that?’ I said, ‘Mike, there’s nothing I would do, I don’t care how simple it is, that I don’t come to you first.’ Because this is his defense at the end of the day, and I’m going to do what he wants.

“Now, some of it might be my ideas, but I’m going to check it with him. If we don’t see it exactly the same way, or he sees it a little bit different, we’re going to do it his way. This is his defense. Then once we agree on it, we’re all pulling the same way, and we’re going to go implement it that way.”

Whitt already has identified one necessary change. Cornerbacks and safeties will meet together almost always, rather than in separate meeting rooms. “I would say 98 percent of the time,” Whitt said. He hopes it eliminates miscommunication on the field, something that led to coverage breakdowns with alarming frequency in the 2017 season.

Melding together their meetings should help as the Packers’ secondary learns a new system. Whitt said one of his similarities with Pettine is how to structure terminology in the playbook. Instead of terms that could have multiple meanings, Whitt said, he has learned Pettine simplifies his system so each term carries only one meaning.

“We have to make sure that they understand their jobs and play fast,” Whitt said. “We can’t clutter their minds with wordy terms or having them think out there. They need to hear a term, understand what it is, and go react. That’s our job, to make it simple for them to go out there and play fast.”

Whitt made it clear there will be differences in the Packers’ coverage schemes next season, and not just because Pettine is defensive coordinator. Though he worked nine seasons under Capers, Whitt said he’ll implement more of his own coverage philosophies.

It’s something he started discussing with McCarthy during their interview for the coordinator position, and continued once he met Pettine.

“A lot of people just (say), ‘He’s going to be a holdover, and he’s going to run the same package,’” Whitt said. “No, I have my own package. It’s misguided to think just because you work up under somebody that that’s necessarily what you’re going to run. So my whole presentation was really different than I even think Mike McCarthy was thinking about.”

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