GREEN BAY - When Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy hired Mike Pettine to be his defensive coordinator, there was a segment of the team’s followers who thought the opposition better buckle its seat belts because here comes the blitz.
As Rex Ryan’s coordinator with the New York Jets, Pettine carries with him a reputation for designing exotic blitzes and using them against any quarterback who dares to throw against him, Tom Brady included.
So far, that Mike Pettine has yet to surface around these parts.
The amount of daring Ryan and Pettine brought to weekly game plans has been undoubtedly exaggerated, so it may not even be fair to say Pettine has been conservative in his calls through the first three weeks of the season.
But for all those fans who thought Pettine would be far more aggressive than his predecessor, Dom Capers, here’s a reality check: Capers loved to send more than four rushers at a quarterback and in his final season pressured with five or more roughly 33 percent of the time.
Pettine, meanwhile, has pressured with five or more 17.5 percent of the time, or roughly half as much as the oft-criticized Capers.
Maybe it’s because he’s not sure his young corners and newly added linebackers are ready for some of the more complicated parts of his defense or maybe he has seen how shaky his starting safeties have been and doesn’t feel he can count on them to hold down the back end when he’s blitzing linebackers and corners.
Regardless, the Packers are not putting enough pressure on the quarterback, and it has shown in their 29-29 tie against Minnesota in Week 2 and 31-17 loss to Washington in Week 3.
On Sunday, quarterback Alex Smith completed 12 of 20 passes for 220 yards and two touchdowns with one interception, posting a strong passer rating of 110.4. The previous week against the Indianapolis Colts, he threw for no touchdowns and had a passer rating of 88.3.
According to the NFL’s NexGen Sports, which measures location, speed and acceleration using sensors spread placed throughout every stadium, Smith had more time to throw against the Packers than he did against either of Washington’s other opponents.
He got rid of the ball in an average of 2.56 seconds against Arizona, 2.65 seconds against the Colts and 2.79 seconds against the Packers.
Likewise, the Vikings’ Kirk Cousins, who threw for 425 yards and four touchdowns at Lambeau Field, averaged the longest amount of time from snap to throw against the Packers. He averaged 2.67 seconds against San Francisco, 2.72 seconds against the Packers and 2.52 seconds against Buffalo.
The name of the game in the NFL is pressure and the Packers just aren’t getting any.
Linebacker Clay Matthews would have helped improve some of the stats this season were he not called for three roughing-the-passer penalties, but that doesn’t change the fact the Packers rank 22nd in completion percentage allowed (68.0), 24th in yards per attempt (7.9), 24th in opponent passer rating (103.1) and tied for 24th in sacks (six).
The second half of the Washington game showed more of what Pettine’s defensive scheme is capable of. He didn’t add that many more to the rush, but he began threatening more rushers and dropping various people out of the box and into coverage to try to confuse Smith.
On one play, he dropped outside linebackers Reggie Gilbert and Kyler Fackrell and inside linebacker Blake Martinez and blitzed slot cornerbacks Josh Jackson and Jermaine Whitehead.
Another time he dropped Martinez, Whitehead and nose tackle Kenny Clark out of pass rush looks and rushed just three. Yet another time he dropped Whitehead and Matthews and rushed Jackson.
When asked two weeks ago about his philosophy on blitzing, Pettine said he has never liked getting stuck on bringing more than four rushers for long periods of time. He said he’s always trying to find a balance between rushing more than four and making it look like he’s going to rush more than four and only rushing four.
“I think you have to mix it,” he said. “I don’t think you can major in one or the other. I think that’s part of game-planning and calling a game, is keeping an offense off-balance.
“If you lean towards too much of a five-, six-man pressure, they’re going to heavy-up the protection and generate some one-on-ones outside. And the simulated stuff we like, but it’s not always going to get home. I’ve always felt a good game plan is a good mix between just regular coverage, simulated pressure and pressure.”
Ideally, it probably is the best philosophy.
But what happens when your four isn’t getting there?
Matthews has been able to get in the backfield a few times this season, but not consistently. Defensive tackles Clark and Mike Daniels have done their jobs well and created pressure up the middle. But outside linebacker Nick Perry has not been effective rushing the passer after missing almost all of training camp, Gilbert has not been as productive as he was in the exhibition season and Fackrell has not been a factor much at all in pass rush.
Now that the Packers have lost Muhammad Wilkerson to a season-ending ankle injury, life will be a little tougher.
Wilkerson wasn’t adding a ton to the pass rush, but he did have three pressures — Daniels leads with eight — and he was good at helping set up others by eating up blockers. Wilkerson helped keep pressure off Daniels and Clark and Pettine will be hard-pressed to fill his role.
Unless 2017 third-round pick Montravius Adams develops quickly — and he is not off to a good start — opposing teams are going to be able to pay more attention to Daniels, Clark and Matthews. The Packers can’t afford to lose anyone else with any pass-rush ability.
In the meantime, Pettine must decide whether he wants to be a high-pressure defense or continue to stay with four-man rushes. His rookie corners seem to be able to handle man-to-man assignments, as do veteran Tramon Williams and second-year corner Kevin King.
With Buffalo (rookie quarterback Josh Allen) and San Francisco (young backup C.J. Beathard) on the schedule two of the next three weeks, he won’t need to push the panic button. But Detroit (Matthew Stafford), the Los Angeles Rams (Jared Goff) and the New England (Brady) are on the horizon and will carve his defense up if there’s no pressure on them.
It’s decision time for Pettine. He can’t sit back and let veteran quarterbacks like Cousins and Smith tear his secondary apart. They’re doing that without much consequence now. He must do something to create pressure or it will be a long year.