Packers' linebackers present puzzle for Mike Pettine
Sixth in a nine-part Packers position-analysis series.
GREEN BAY – Now a month on the job, new Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has had some time to unravel the mystery of the 2017 linebacker corps.
Through countless hours of tape study, Pettine undoubtedly was encouraged by the steady improvement of youngsters Blake Martinez and Kyler Fackrell, a solid season of quarterback pursuit from veteran Clay Matthews and the out-of-the-blue emergence of Reggie Gilbert late in the season.
Yet add up the group’s total performance and he’d be hard-pressed not to come up with a failing grade.
It wasn’t just that starter Nick Perry was injured again and didn’t have a sack in the final seven games or veteran addition Ahmad Brooks looked beat-up in the second half of the season or Joe Thomas was a non-factor, a year after playing 40 percent of the defensive snaps.
It was the stupefying miscommunications in pass coverage, the glaring lack of interceptions and forced fumbles and the inability to keep quarterbacks from scrambling out of sacks.
Pettine will have some talent to work with when he meets his defense for the first time in April, but figuring out which pieces fit and where could be a process. If there’s one thing Pettine wants more of, it’s versatility with his personnel.
Matthews is the most versatile player Pettine has and figuring out where he can have the most impact will be critical. Pettine values edge rushers, but he might benefit more from having Matthews play a hybrid inside/outside spot where his positioning determines whether it’s a 3-4 or 4-3 front.
Perry could wind up being a defensive end as much as an outside linebacker and Fackrell and Vince Biegel give Pettine a pair of guys who can drop into coverage from rush-linebacker positions.
The Packers went into the season expecting to use a combination of Martinez, Thomas and Ryan inside with no one guaranteed a three-down assignment. But Martinez developed much faster than anyone saw coming and he became the guy they couldn’t take off the field. Though his pass coverage was spotty, Martinez bit far less often on play-action fakes and still managed to play with his feet on fire. Had Capers put Matthews inside instead of messing around with safeties Morgan Burnett and Josh Jones there, it’s possible the defense would have been far less mistake-prone. Matthews didn’t have a great sack year, but he was the most consistent player moving the quarterback off his spot and putting him on his back. After missing four games in 2016, he missed just two last season. Fackrell improved after a poor training camp and while he still has a long way to go, could become a disruptive player in Pettine’s system. Gilbert showed at the end of the year that he should have been on the roster ahead of Chris Odom and was impressive in his short time on the field.
Not having Perry for half the defensive snaps was devastating. The Packers agreed to pay him $12 million a year last offseason because he missed only two games in 2016 and led the team with 11 sacks. Without Perry, Matthews’ pressure resulted in far fewer sacks because there wasn’t anyone on the other side forcing the issue. It would be foolish of the Packers to think that he’ll play 16 games next season and that’s why it’s so critical that they address the pass-rush position. As much improvement as Martinez made, he has to understand zone concepts better and make sure he’s taking away the middle of the field from opposing quarterbacks. Not having Thomas available much of the season hurt the pass defense, but Martinez is a better player and needs to refine his game. Jake Ryan sometimes was a liability in coverage, but he improved in that area and made a lot of tackles in the run game. He just isn’t a dynamic athlete and didn’t have a single sack despite numerous blitz opportunities. When Matthews and Perry were out of the game, the pass rush was anemic. Fackrell, Brooks and Biegel combined for 4½ sacks.
Whatever scheme Pettine comes up with, he’s going to need more pass-rush help. Any hope Perry was over the injury bug flew out the window last season and with Matthews set to turn 32 in May, it’s going to be critical to add a physically gifted edge rusher. It might come in the form of a defensive end early in the draft, but GM Brian Gutekunst needs to take a shot at a pass rusher with his first pick if there’s a feasible candidate.
Clay Matthews: After playing 46.2 percent of the snaps in ’16, Matthews played 62.8 percent in ’17. He missed two games, one with a groin injury and the other with a hamstring. Matthews finished with 7½ sacks, marking the third straight season he failed to reach double digits. But he led the team with 12 quarterback knockdowns and also had a dozen quarterback pressures. He was one of the few players on defense who had multiple big plays. His hit on Cleveland quarterback DeShone Kizer resulted in an interception that set up the game-winning touchdown in overtime and his 63-yard fumble return at Minnesota gave the Packers a chance to take control of that game. Matthews had three missed tackles, his worst on a screen pass that the Vikings' Jerrick McKinnon ran 27 yards for a touchdown. As far as rushing the passer, Matthews was far more active from the outside than he was inside. Of his seven sacks, 3½ came when he was lined up on the left, 1½ on the right and 1½ from an inside spot in the dime. Matthews played a stack weak-side position in a 4-3 look that Capers used about 50 snaps. Grade: B
Nick Perry: Missing four games due to hand, ankle and shoulder injuries, Perry managed to play 518 snaps or 49.4 percent. He broke his right hand against Atlanta in Week 2 and had to play with a club on it. Finished with seven sacks, three of which came in one game against Chicago’s Charles Leno. He played against several backup left tackles and should have been able to do a lot more damage even with a club on his hand. Late in the year, when the defense really needed him, Perry was out. Had six quarterback hits, eight pressures and just one tackle for loss. When he’s healthy, Perry can be a force on the edge. He’s particularly good at getting the ball out of the quarterback’s hand, but he had just one forced fumble. If the defense is going to get better, Perry is going to have to play more. A lot more. Grade: D+.
Kyler Fackrell: Started off poorly in training camp and flashed only a few decent pass rushes early on. Played too tentatively and was afraid to take any chances. But as the season wore on, he started to play more recklessly and his playing time increased. He wound up playing 42.7 percent of the snaps, mostly in place of Perry, but also as part of a rotation with Matthews and Brooks. Had 34 tackles, three sacks, six quarterback pressures, four quarterback hits, two tackles for loss and a fumble recovery. Played more snaps than anybody on special teams and after a solid offseason in the weight room, Fackrell needs to really pour it on. He’s still not strong enough to be able to slug it out with left tackles but if he can continue to build on his big frame, he has a chance to be a solid contributor. His speed and wingspan make him an intriguing player. Grade: C-
Ahmad Brooks: Signed after the 49ers cut him in training camp. Team’s scouting department still felt he had something left and at times he showed he did. But a back condition slowed him down early in the season and he never really seemed to get in a groove. Played 33.3 percent of the snaps and had 1½ sacks, four quarterback hits and four pressures, which isn't bad. Had four offside penalties, which is too many. Team will probably wait until after the draft to decide whether to bring him back. Turns 34 in March. Grade: D+
Chris Odom: General manager Ted Thompson saw something in Odom, but the coaches obviously didn’t. Was on the roster all year after being claimed off waivers from Atlanta. Played just 59 snaps and made nine tackles. Curious thing is that he was on the roster all season while Gilbert toiled on the practice squad. When Gilbert got called up, he made more plays in one game than Odom did all season. Hard to say if Odom fits Pettine’s system but after paying him a full salary for a year, the personnel department would look really bad if it cut him. Grade: F
Vince Biegel: Suffered a broken foot in offseason workouts and missed all of training camp. Started the season on PUP and finally saw action in the first Detroit game. Played 11.6 percent of the snaps on defense and 32.9 percent on special teams. Had 13 tackles, including two for loss. Faced an uphill climb trying to pass rush with no training camp against NFL talent. Spent so much time rehabbing and practicing, he looked worn out at the end of the year. This will be a huge offseason for him. Grade: Incomplete
Reggie Gilbert: Spent all but the last two weeks on the practice squad, then when Perry injured his ankle was signed to the 53. In two games (86 snaps), he had two quarterback hits, two quarterback pressures and a sack. Deserved to play a lot more during the season and should make some nice physical gains during the offseason. Grade: Incomplete
Blake Martinez: Finished tied for first in the NFL with 144 tackles. Played an amazing 93.6 percent of the defensive snaps and chipped in 54 snaps on special teams. Missed a team-high 11 tackles, but as a percentage of all his tackle attempts, it was only 7.1. Also led the team with 10 tackles for loss. Did a decent job rushing the passer, blitzing both up the middle and off the edge in dime situations. Had a sack, an interception and two forced fumbles. Biggest mark against him was his play against the pass. A year ago, he couldn’t be trusted on third downs because he would bite so hard on play-action that he would lose his man or vacate his zone. This year, he played under more control, but he still got lost in zone coverage. Biggest challenge will be learning the entire defense so he has a better idea of where his help is and where he’s supposed to provide help. Should remain a three-down player in Pettine’s system. Grade: B
Jake Ryan: Played 48.3 percent of the snaps on defense and 50.2 percent on special teams. Finished second on the team with 89 tackles and had three for loss along with one sack, one quarterback pressure and one forced fumble. Solid against the run, but missed seven tackles. Difficult for him to match up with backs in pass coverage. Was more aware than Martinez in zone coverage but broke up just one pass compared to Martinez’s 11. Strictly a run-down-only player who was taken off the field when a safety was moved up in the nitro defense. Later in the season played in the nickel when the nitro was mostly scrapped. Grade: C-
Joe Thomas: Made the team based on coverage ability and special teams. Suffered a high-ankle sprain in the first Chicago game and never got back on track. With Martinez entrenched at the dime position, Thomas was relegated to special teams, playing 50.5 percent of those snaps. He finished with just 107 snaps on defense and finished with 14 tackles -- including two for loss -- and a half sack. Understands pass defense better than any of the other inside linebackers and can cover one-on-one. Could be someone that Pettine uses on third downs next year. Grade: D
David Talley: Rookie from Grand Valley State was placed on injured reserve on cut-down day last August. Grade: Incomplete