INDIANAPOLIS – Mike McCarthy understands the long-held perception of his team. The Green Bay Packers' roster has a natural hierarchy: There is Aaron Rodgers, and there has been everyone else.
In an offseason of wide-sweeping change in Green Bay, McCarthy would like to chuck that notion. His messaging started not long after the season when, in a news conference announcing defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ firing, McCarthy said he expects the Packers' defense to be better than their offense. If you found that goal a little startling, you weren’t alone.
As McCarthy explained Wednesday at the NFL scouting combine, it was an attempt to rewire his defense’s mindset.
“It’s got to be a mentality,” McCarthy said. “I’m sick and tired of our defense feeling like the stepchild. I mean, how many times do you have to tell them, ‘You’re not the stepchild'? That’s a blatant statement, and it’s not a cure-all. But it’s definitely a starting point.”
No, a different mindset alone won’t be enough to improve a defense that ranked as one of the NFL’s worst the past two seasons. As McCarthy noted, the Packers need to grant their defense “the opportunity to be better” next season.
That includes free-agent upgrades — general manager Brian Gutekunst said his front office has had “more extensive” preparation for the open market this offseason — as well as hitting on draft picks, presumably starting with No. 14 overall this spring. It includes scheme adjustments, something new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will bring.
A regular term with the Packers' defense moving forward will be “multiple.” McCarthy wants to see that side of the ball continue to become more flexible. That trend started last season with the introduction of their “nitro” package, requiring safeties to be adept linebackers.
With Pettine’s history of having a diverse scheme — “if you asked him whether he plays a 4-3 or a 3-4,” McCarthy said, “he’d say yes” — he should be an ideal defensive coordinator to continue that evolution.
“It was definitely part of the screening process,” McCarthy said, “what you were looking for.”
McCarthy said it didn’t take long into his interview with Pettine — someone he barely knew previously — to realize he fit his requirements in a new defensive coordinator. He was intrigued by Pettine’s experience not only as a head coach but also as a quality-control assistant who learned all facets of coaching.
Yet coaching alone won’t bridge the divide. The coaching community is small. Schemes and ideas often meld together.
Case in point: McCarthy drew a direct lineage between Capers and Pettine.
Back in the 1990s, Capers helped create the fire-zone blitz scheme with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Marvin Lewis, a linebackers coach on that Steelers staff, later became a defensive coordinator in Baltimore. Pettine’s first NFL experience came as a lowly assistant on that Ravens staff. His time in Baltimore is what shaped Pettine as an NFL coach.
That doesn’t mean Pettine and Capers run identical schemes. Pettine has his own “spin” on how to play defense, McCarthy said. Still, it would be ambitious to expect a new defensive coordinator to make all the difference in how a team plays defense.
“There’s carryover for what we have in place,” McCarthy said.
Ultimately, you need players. Which makes the personnel acquisition phase of this Packers offseason especially important. Most important, Gutekunst said, is to build “a dominant pass rush.”
But the Packers also continue to lack in cover men. They need at least another good corner, and preferably more veteran experience on the perimeter.
“There’s a balance,” Gutekunst said, “between experience and legs. You’d love to have both, and there’s usually a window in there where you have both, where a player goes through a stage where he has both. But that’s always constant in the NFL, with the salary cap and the way things are set up. Acquiring experience and staying under the cap can be a difficult challenge at times.”
The Packers can make their improvements in scheme and personnel, but attitude still matters on defense. So McCarthy, unrelenting, will hold his defense to the highest possible standard, no matter how absurd the notion of outdoing a Rodgers-led offense might seem.
“Hey, we have a great quarterback,” McCarthy said, “but this is a team game. Great defenses win championships. … I’ve always looked at defense in the game of football, they’re a thermostat. They keep the environment consistent. Because there’s days that you may not catch, throw or run it as good. Defense’s room for error, it’s in a better spot to have consistency. And obviously players, scheme, all that factors in, too.
“We need to be more consistent on defense. We need to do a better job against the top quarterbacks. To me, that’s a real outlier of our top defenses.”
Aaron Nagler and Ryan Wood discuss Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy's plan to improve the attitude on defense. (Feb. 28, 2018)