Silverstein: Pressure builds on Mike Pettine's defense to save Packers' season

Tom Silverstein
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine takes notes during practice at Ray Nitschke Field on Wednesday, October 31, 2018 in Ashwaubenon, Wis.

GREEN BAY – Over the next two weeks, don’t be fooled if Mike McCarthy’s offense starts resembling the one that ranked in the top 10 in points scored in eight of his first 12 seasons as Green Bay Packers head coach.

The Packers will be playing at home against a pair of teams (Arizona and Atlanta) that rank in the bottom quarter of the NFL in points allowed. Despite their offensive struggles, the Packers average 28 points per game at home, so they’ve got that going for them.

Should they win the next two, however, they’ll head into Chicago with an 0-6 road record and the same objective they should have in every game that matters the rest of this cloud-covered season.

Win on defense.

Of the team’s three units, the defense is the only one that can be counted on for a consistent performance. It’s not always great and it’s not always good enough to win, but first-year coordinator Mike Pettine’s group plays hard every week, gets after the quarterback and makes the best of whatever personnel deficiencies it faces each given week.

The challenge facing Pettine is to play good enough defense that the offense doesn’t have to score 30 points to win in Chicago or against any other playoff-bound team. It got a heck of a lot harder when defensive end Mike Daniels was lost for the rest of the season with an unidentified foot injury. Daniels was placed on injured reserve Saturday.

It may put Pettine in the position of blitzing a lot more than he would like and having to count on an injury-riddled secondary to back him up.

Through Week 11, the Packers ranked No. 1 in the NFL in sacks per pass attempt and No. 3 in total sacks. Daniels had only two sacks this season, but his impact was felt with the consistent pressure he provided up the middle, teaming with Kenny Clark, a young, ascending force at nose tackle, to make opponents think first about securing the middle against the Packers.

Daniels had only three quarterback hits to go with his two sacks, but he leads by a lot in quarterback pressures – unofficially he has 16 – and his absence was felt in his first full game out, a 24-17 loss to the Minnesota Vikings last Sunday.

“It’s tough to replace a guy of his physicality, really, and the way he affects the run game, (too),” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “Some of those one-on-one blocks, it’s pretty disruptive.”

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The Packers sacked Kirk Cousins only twice and knocked him to the ground two other times despite 40 drop backs. The Vikings paid the Packers a compliment – as well as acknowledging their own shortcomings on the offensive line -- by keeping backs and tight ends in to help block on most third-downs.

The result was that Cousins had all day to throw and Pettine eventually had to start blitzing cornerbacks to create some pressure.

There’s no guarantee that Daniels would have gotten to Cousins on any of those 40 drop backs, but it wouldn’t be off by much to say he would have provided more pressure than his replacements, Tyler Lancaster and Montravius Adams.

It also should be noted that Matthews and Kyler Fackrell did not have a single sack or quarterback hit in Minnesota. There’s no question having both Daniels and Clark in the middle made it possible for Fackrell to have eight sacks this season and not having Daniels was part of the reason he had none against the Vikings.

The question facing Pettine in the coming weeks is how much he must blitz to create pressure on the quarterback and allow his defense to be the difference in wins and losses. Against the Vikings, he dialed up several blitzes with cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Jaire Alexander and none resulted in sacks.

The one that had a chance to have the most impact occurred with just over 10 minutes left and the Vikings facing a third-and-6 at their own 24-yard line. Pettine’s design was outstanding and it featured Williams and linebacker Blake Martinez rushing through a huge gap on the left side of the Vikings’ offensive line.

But as with all blitzes, there are risks and, in this case, Alexander and linebacker Antonio Morrison got confused on who should cover whom and receiver Adam Thielen was left wide open for a 20-yard completion.

Had the Packers gotten that stop, they might have been able to take advantage of the field position and cut Minnesota’s 24-14 lead with plenty of time left to complete the comeback. It’s those kinds of misses that affect a defensive coordinator’s will to call them again.

“I think you have to affect the quarterback in multiple ways,” Pettine said earlier in the week. “Some teams, you can depend on just their four-man rush. There have been situations where we’ve been able to do that and other ones where we felt we had to generate pressure elsewhere.

“Mike’s certainly a big loss. That’s life in the NFL.”

If Pettine can get cornerbacks Kevin King (hamstring) and Bashaud Breeland (groin) back before the Packers face the Bears, he may have the ability to send more pressure and get his defense to start dictating the action.

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King’s absence – he has missed five games and parts of two others – has hurt the defense a lot because when you have three corners who can play man-to-man you can take more chances. Breeland was just starting to get his legs under him after signing in September when he bowed out for good early in the Seattle game. A fourth corner with man ability is a luxury.

What Pettine and the rest of the defense aspire to is forcing turnovers that flip field position or score points. It’s something the Packers have not done. Their 12 takeaways this season – including just six interceptions – ranks tied for 23rd in the NFL and isn’t good enough when the offense ranks 17th in scoring.

Given the decent pressure the front seven has provided, there should be more interceptions.

“We just haven’t gotten the ball off of people,” secondary coach Jason Simmons said. “We’re going to continue to stress it with these games left. Hopefully, it turns around. As everybody knows, and I’m sure you’ve heard before, they come in bunches, and hopefully our time is coming soon.”

What Lancaster and Adams gave Pettine upfront was enough to hold the Vikings to 3.1 yards per carry. The 6-3, 313-pound Lancaster should provide adequate support in the run game since he’s a nose tackle who had just 3 1/2 sacks in three seasons as a starter at Northwestern. Adams’ play was a bit of a surprise.

Adams is the one the Packers really need to mature quickly and fulfill the pass-rushing potential the team thought he had when it drafted him in the third round in 2017. He had a key third-down stop in the run game against Minnesota in 19 snaps, but both his snap total and impact must start taking the upward trajectory Clark’s did during his second year.

“He's developing every single day and he's doing good things,” defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery said. “It's been positive. I tell our guys in our room, we're only as good as our weakest link. So those guys are striving every day to get better.”

Pettine will have the luxury of going up against a rookie quarterback playing for the 32nd-rated offense in the NFL on Sunday when the Packers take on the Cardinals. It shouldn’t be that much of a challenge to create pressure or get Josh Rosen to throw into coverage.

But starting this week, the onus is on the defense to save this team, Mike Daniels or not.

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