Silverstein: Packers' sideline shuffle vital to Mike Pettine's multiple groupings

Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine watches during training camp practice at Ray Nitschke Field on Friday, August 3, 2018, in Ashwaubenon, Wis.

GREEN BAY – If you can’t pay attention, you can’t play for Mike Pettine.

It’s as simple as that.

It’s not the only thing the Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator demands of his players but its importance has been on display every time the defense has been on the field.

Watch the Packers' sideline sometime when the opposition has the ball. Players are gathered tightly around the assistant coaches assigned to the sideline, waiting to hear what personnel group is up next. Miss it, and the rhythm of substitution is broken and things get scrambled.

"You have to be on cue every single second,” inside linebacker Blake Martinez said. “I commend those guys. I’m lucky to be out there the whole time, so I don’t have to worry about it. But I still have to orchestrate it.”

So far, Pettine has used no less than eight different personnel groupings; players shuttle in and out like the sideline is a commuter train. It’s dizzying sometimes to keep track of who’s on the field, but there is a method to the madness.

Pettine is consistently trying to create favorable match-ups, whether it’s man to man, man to defensive call or man to the situation.

In some cases, such as the secondary, he’s trying to make sure he gets the most out of his deepest position. In other cases, he’s highlighting the strength of a player and hiding the weakness of someone else.

“A lot of it is, you want to get your best 11 out there in that situation,” Pettine said. “So, often it’s a function of who do they have out there, what do they do in a given situation with the grouping that they have?

“So, it’s all game-plan driven, and it’ll change week-to-week.”

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In the first two weeks, Pettine has used a base (3-4) and variations of the nickel (five defensive backs), dime (six defensive backs) and turbo (seven defensive backs) groupings.

He has used three different nickel packages: one that features three safeties, one inside linebacker and two defensive linemen; one that features three cornerbacks, one inside linebacker and three defensive linemen; and one that features three cornerbacks, two inside linebackers and two defensive linemen.

There are two variations of both the dime and two variations of the seven-defensive back grouping.

And within each grouping the players on the field – mostly on the defensive line and at outside linebacker – can change.

Martinez, along with cornerback Tramon Williams and safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Kentrell Brice, are the only players who have played all 143 snaps. Pettine has used 20 different players in the first two weeks and that does not include two injured players, safety Josh Jones and inside linebacker Oren Burks, both of whom are expected to play Sunday at Washington.

Of those 20 players, 14 have played 50 or more snaps, three have played between 20 to 40 snaps, one has played between 10 to 20 and two have played fewer than 10.

“We’ve talked about from day one with this package, the complexity of it comes with the versatility of the players,” passing game coordinator Joe Whitt said. “That’s part of trying to keep it simple for them.

“But they have to understand the whole package. They have to understand what all 11 men are doing so we can move the pieces around and make it more difficult for the quarterback.”

The conductor

Martinez is the conductor of it all.

Pettine radios in the personnel group and defensive call through the transmitter in the linebacker’s helmet. As soon as the call is made from Pettine, assistant coaches start yelling out the personnel group and players run on and off the field.

Sometimes the players have to hurry because either the call doesn’t come right away or the offense gets to the line of scrimmage in a hurry. Everyone must be ready at a moment’s notice to run out on the field and replace someone.

Everyone must pay attention.

“You must, you have to,” said inside linebacker Antonio Morrison, who rotated with Korey Toomer against Minnesota last Sunday. “Any play could change. You don’t know, one play, five plays, so you have to be in the game.

“As soon as that play ends, everybody’s ears, everybody’s eyes (are) waiting on the personnel grouping, the call.”

Martinez doesn’t have to get the players on the field – the coaches do that – but he does have to make sure the personnel is correct for the call and the players are lined up correctly. He shouts out the defensive call and makes any adjustments based on how the offense lines up.

It has not always been a perfect operation.

Against the Vikings, the defense was facing an important third and 5 late in the third quarter when a miscommunication led to only 10 players being on the field. Quarterback Kirk Cousins avoided a sack by outside linebacker Reggie Gilbert and dumped the the ball to receiver Laquon Treadwell for what would have been a first down, but Treadwell dropped it.

“It wasn’t like (confusion with) personnel, but it was, in this personnel we want this guy in instead of this guy,” Martinez said. “One guy came out and another guy didn’t go in, didn’t get the re-call.”

Getting the call and getting on and off the field can be a challenge, especially if you’re in on the tackle near the opposite sideline or way down the field. At the same time a player is peeling himself up off the ground, he’s got to remember to look to the sideline and see if he’s supposed to be on the field for the next play.

Those who are on the bench have the luxury of being a couple of feet away from the call being bellowed out.

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“You don’t want to be scrambling to hear the personnel and rushing to get lined up,” rookie cornerback Josh Jackson said. “That’s what makes it difficult.

“It gets a little tougher when you’re on the field. You don’t know what personnel is coming on the field. As long as you have good communication, it’s easy, but without communication, it’s hard."

Extreme variations

There have been times when Pettine has been extreme with his variations.

During one series against Chicago in Week 1, he had the base on the field twice, the nickel twice, the nickel with three safeties once, the dime four times and seven defensive backs twice.

Players were flying on and off the field at a dizzying pace and the coaches were screaming out personnel changes every play or two.

“When Pettine wants a different group he calls it and I echo it and I make sure that group gets in,” said secondary coach Jason Simmons. “So, his mindset on what he wants to do and the look he wants to show the QB, he has that. But the main thing for us is, I get it echoed, I get that personnel group out there.”

At some point during the season, the substituting won’t look quite as chaotic as it does now. Martinez said the players are getting used to all the shuffling and communication between everyone is getting better.

He doesn’t think it will be long before it’s a smooth operation.

“I think it will be good for us once we get the rotation down well,” Martinez said. “Other teams will be like, ‘OK, who’s coming out, who’s going to cover, how are we going to get this matchup?’, and they’re not able to get in the right play they want.

“It’s been pretty good. If anything it’s been random flukes here and there."

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