GREEN BAY – The first thing to know about the Green Bay Packers defense is, to a man, its key players don’t believe they’ve arrived yet.
Not while allowing 23.9 points per game, which ranks 17th in the NFL. Not with 351.8 yards allowed per game, which ranks 13th. And especially not with only 12 takeaways (only five teams have forced fewer).
It would be too much to call the Packers' defense good, and it's a far cry from great. But it hasn't been bad.
“I feel like we just need to get some turnovers,” defensive tackle Kenny Clark said. “We need turnovers, game-changing plays to take that next step. But I feel like we’ve been a pretty good defensive unit.”
By the end of Dom Capers’ term as defensive coordinator, forcing a punt felt like a minor miracle. Two years ago in the NFC Championship game, the Atlanta Falcons scored touchdowns on six of their nine possessions in a 44-21 rout.
Even if the Packers haven’t gotten turnovers this season, they have gotten stops. Their average of 24 points allowed per game might look identical to 2017, but given the league-wide explosion of offense, it represents significant improvement. A year ago, the NFL’s top five offenses averaged 28.24 points per game. This season, the top five offenses are scoring 32.86 points per game.
The Packers' defense has not been good, but it also has not been the problem, not compared to their floundering offense. And it appears to be on a positive trajectory.
So the second thing to know about the Packers' defense is, to a man, its key players like where they’re heading, and they believe Mike Pettine is a big reason for their improvement.
Could the Packers pair him as defensive coordinator with their new head coach?
“I think he’s a great coach,” inside linebacker Blake Martinez said. “Obviously, I don’t have that much power in those decisions, but, yeah. He’s a great coach, and I would love to have him back.”
Pairing an existing defensive coordinator with a new head coach is working in Chicago. The Bears, hoping to upgrade their sluggish offense, hired Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy as their head coach last offseason. Their defense, which finished 10th in yards and ninth in points despite a 5-11 record, offered a foundation. So the Bears retained defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
The Bears' offense has climbed into the league’s top five with 28.7 points per game, up from 29th (16.5) last season. Their defense has also continued its progress, ranking fourth in yards and points. It’s why Chicago is 8-4.
Pettine, whom president/CEO Mark Murphy declined to call a head-coaching candidate this week, didn't say Thursday whether he’d be open to the idea.
“That’s difficult. It’s just so hard,” Pettine said. “Of course, when something like this happens, you at some point begin to think of your own future, and it’s just been really tough to do that. Just especially with Joe (Philbin) stepping in (as interim head coach), and all of our thoughts are on (preparing to play) Atlanta.
“I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Yeah. Not open to it, open to it.’ I mean, that’s a bridge that will definitely get crossed. I just don’t think now is the time to do it.”
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From the day he was introduced as coordinator, Pettine prioritized defending the pass over stopping the run. The Packers' run defense has slipped from last season, ranked 25th with 127.8 yards per game (17th and 112.1 in 2017). Yet, despite a secondary depleted by injuries, their pass defense has been much better.
The Packers rank sixth with 224 passing yards allowed per game, significant improvement from their 23rd ranking with 236.8 yards per game in 2017. More impressive, the Packers' opponent passer rating of 95.7 has dropped more than six points. Their 102 rating ranked 31st in 2017.
The frequent coverage breakdowns of the past couple years have decreased.
“I think our biggest stride,” Martinez said, “is just our communication factor and our trust with one another, that we can get the job done and that the guy next to us is going to get his job done. We’re just starting to play that much quicker.”
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Martinez said the defense watches film as an entire group this season, instead of splintering into individual positions. If someone makes a mistake, everyone sees it. Pettine also introduced Wednesday Bingo, a way to quiz players over their assignments.
Get a wrong answer, it’s like being called out in the middle of your high school class.
“We pull the ball out of there,” Martinez said, “and ask a given question in front of everybody, saying, ‘Who’s their No. 1 target this week?’ Or, ‘What’s the No. 1 run?’ Just random things like that, that allow us to see who’s preparing, who isn’t.”
Pettine said this season has been “probably the most fun I’ve had coaching in a long time.” It seems, if nothing else, Pettine has done what he could.
Clay Matthews said this season has reminded him of early in Capers’ tenure, when he built the Packers' defense into one befitting a Super Bowl champion.
“The thing I really enjoyed about Dom,” Matthews said, “… when I first came in, there was a lot more accountability put on the players to get their job done. I think a little bit more pressure needs to be put on the young guys when they come in here, and he’s (Pettine) done exactly that.
“I think he’s done a great job of putting us in the right direction.”