Sixth in a series of nine position previews leading up to the Green Bay Packers' 2018 training camp.
GREEN BAY – New Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has a stock answer for those who wonder if his scheme is more 4-3 or 3-4.
“Yes,” he’ll say.
Pettine may come to the Packers with a history of more 3-4 than 4-3 as head coach of the Cleveland Browns and defensive coordinator of the New York Jets, but he has vowed to play to the strength of his personnel.
Should the investments the Packers have put into their defensive line over the past couple of years start to mature, there’s a good chance Pettine will find himself playing more defensive linemen than linebackers on more plays in 2018.
The defensive line accounted for only 11 ½ of the team’s 37 sacks last season, which wasn’t good enough for a defense that ranked tied for 17th in sacks. Even stalwart Mike Daniels, despite leading the linemen with five sacks, was nowhere near the force he had been in previous years.
There are a couple things that should encourage Pettine.
For one, Daniels is still young enough (28) to expect a rebound season. For another, 2016 first-round pick Kenny Clark -- who progressed all season and accumulated all 4 ½ of his sacks in the final five games -- could make a big leap in his third season. Then there’s 2017 second-round pick Montravius Adams, whose rookie season was sidetracked because of injury but possesses all the physical attributes of a good inside pass rusher.
Finally, the addition of former Jets stalwart Muhammad Wilkerson, who is 28 and two years removed from a 12-sack season, could provide valuable pressure at several positions.
“That’s why we feel really good about that group,” Pettine said during offseason workouts. “That was a pretty good group coming in and it was only made that much better by adding Muhammad.”
Roster locks: Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark.
Good bets: Muhammad Wilkerson, Montravius Adams.
On the bubble: Dean Lowry, James Looney.
Long shots: Conor Sheehy, Joey Mbu, Tyler Lancaster.
Biggest offseason move
It wasn’t a blockbuster signing, but the addition of Wilkerson was a low-risk gamble (one year, $5 million). He only has 8 sacks over the last two seasons and was rumored to be chronically late to meetings, but from 2013-,15, the 6-4, 315-pound Wilkerson had 28 ½ sacks and was considered one of the Jets’ best players. Whether the chronic losing beat him down or he got soft after cashing in on a five-year, $86 million contract before the ’16 season, Wilkerson still has physical ability, according to some talent evaluators. A big plus is that he knows Pettine and his system and might be on a mission to earn back the money he lost when the Jets cut him in February.
The biggest battle won’t be between any of the linemen. Instead, it will be between the linemen and the outside linebackers for playing time. Under previous defensive coordinator Dom Capers, the outside linebackers were set up to be the sack kings. It wasn’t a very good plan when Clay Matthews and Nick Perry were on the sideline with injuries and Kyler Fackrell and Ahmad Brooks had to replace them. If Wilkerson, Adams or even Lowry provide pass rush, they could force Pettine to go with four down linemen and just two linebackers in base or nickel situations. The most pressure might be on Adams, who needs to advance from prospect to producer.
Keep an eye on
Rookie James Looney isn’t flashy, but his reputation in college was as someone who plays with effort and enthusiasm. At 6-3, 280, he’s not ready to battle with NFL interior linemen, but if Pettine does play a lot of 4-3, Looney has the potential to succeed at the end spot. He’s got decent edge speed and while he won’t be a consistent sack guy, he’s got a chance to fill a key backup role on early and late downs. He might be able to slide inside on passing downs and provide some pass rush, but he’s going to have to work from a strength disadvantage this year and figure out how to add variance to his pass rushers.
Can Daniels and Wilkerson complement each other’s game and become a force on passing downs? The Packers haven’t had two prime inside pass rushers with the quickness to get off the ball on passing downs and the strength to maintain their lanes should it be a run. The emergence of Clark late last season moved them in that direction, but Daniels and Wilkerson possess top-flight pass-rush ability and have to learn to play off one another. The best defenses in the NFL get to the quarterback from the inside out and the Packers need to shift in that direction.
Wilkerson will have a positive effect on the defense, but he’s got to stay healthy. Playing on a one-year deal should motivate him, but it all comes down to how many snaps he’s on the field. He doesn’t have to play 75 percent of the snaps to be effective because Clark and Adams should be able to add some pass-rush help. Daniels must become more of a team player and stick to his assignment instead of trying to do too much. Clark may emerge as the best of the lot given his youth, character and proven ability. Pettine will have to find ways to best use him. If Adams can progress, then the defensive line could be the strength of the defense.