Analysis: Mike Pettine making strong case to keep leading Packers' defense

Eric Baranczyk and Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine during Green Bay Packers Training Camp Thursday, August 2, 2018 at Ray Nitschke Field in Ashwaubenon, Wis

Mike Pettine is making a good argument that he should stick around on the next Green Bay Packers coaching staff.

Not that CEO Mark Murphy and general manager Brian Gutekunst should force Pettine on their next coach. That’s asking for trouble. A coach should pick his own staff and assistants he’s comfortable with and who are accountable to him, not to the GM or CEO.

But in his first year as Packers coordinator, Pettine has fielded a credible defense without having a lot of talent to work with. He did so again Sunday in the Packers’ 24-17 loss at Chicago.

Against the Bears, Pettine didn’t have his best player, tackle Kenny Clark (elbow injury), and that’s after losing his other starting defensive tackle, Mike Daniels, to injured reserve earlier this season.

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He replaced Clark with an undrafted rookie who started the season on the practice squad, Tyler Lancaster.

In fact, Pettine’s starting lineup also included a linebacker-safety, Eddie Pleasant, signed off the street only three weeks ago, and a rotational defensive lineman, Fadol Brown, claimed on waivers less than two weeks ago.

Yet, while the Packers’ defense gave up 24 points, it played well enough to win this game, just as it has most of this season.

Lancaster played about as well as the Packers could have hoped in Clark’s place and led the defense with seven tackles. With his squatty build (6-feet-3, 313 pounds), he’s a bull inside who brings to mind John Jurkovic, a gritty run stopper who played in 69 games for the Packers from 1991-95.

Lancaster doesn’t have the explosiveness off the ball to be a pass rusher, but he’s a good run defender because he stays low and has the upper-body strength to extend his arms when he takes on a blocker. Arm extension is important because it allows for vision — it’s hard to see the ball if your face mask is stuck in a blocker’s chest.

Lancaster made just that kind of play on a first down late in the third quarter. Bears running back Jordan Howard tried to cut back a run from the left side of his center to the right side of him. But Lancaster kept right guard Bryan Witzmann at arm’s length and had the vision to mirror Howard, and when Howard cut back, Lancaster shed Witzmann and dropped the running back for a two-yard gain. That’s a win for the defense.

Howard is a good back, and with Clark out there was good reason to suspect the Bears would just ram the ball through the heart of the Packers’ defense. But Howard rushed for only a 3.2-yard average on his 19 carries, and Lancaster (51 snaps) and Dean Lowry (53) did much of that work on the interior of the line. The Packers would have been thrilled with those numbers even if Clark had played.

Overall, Pettine’s defense ranks No. 17 in points allowed, which is impressive if you consider the lack of star power, and that he needed part of the season to get to know his personnel. His best player now is first-round cornerback Jaire Alexander, who has had a promising rookie season. But there just isn’t difference-making talent around him.

Pettine instead relies on scheme to get the job done, including frequent blitzing of cornerbacks and safeties to pressure the quarterback.

Late in the second quarter, for instance, the Packers on a couple of plays pressured Mitch Trubisky but then didn’t have the athletic ability to finish. On the first, backup outside linebacker Reggie Gilbert got a one-on-one matchup with left tackle Charles Leno and beat him with an outside rush. But Trubisky slipped away from the sack and gained three yards on the scramble.

On the next play, Pettine blitzed Pleasant from the slot, and the safety went untouched on his way to the quarterback. But Pleasant was unable to wrap up Trubisky, and the quarterback wriggled  away and converted the third-and-seven by completing a big 23-yards pass to tight end Adam Shaheen.

Getting those kinds of sacks takes talent that can change games.

Based on what Pettine has done this year, the Packers would be taking a step back to start over on defense again next season. If Murphy and Gutekunst hire a head coach with a defensive background, then Pettine’s chances of staying are probably nil. The new coach his going to want to run his own scheme with his own coaches.

But if Murphy and Gutekunst hire a coach with an offensive background, that new coach should seriously consider retaining Pettine to see if a second season, and some added talent, could produce something even better.

Pro Bowling

Davante Adams is looking like a top-five receiver in the league.

Among wide receivers he’s tied for third in receptions (100) and ranks fourth in yards (1,315), tied for fourth in receptions (100) and is second in touchdown catches (12).

His best-known trait is his footwork in beating press coverage at the line of scrimmage. He’s not a burner (4.56-second 40), but his body control when faking and making cuts helps him create separation as well. Where he has improved most recently is his ability to make contested catches.

An example of that was one of his eight receptions against the Bears. Late in the third quarter the Packers faced a third-and-eight, and Adams was matched one-on-one against cornerback Prince Amukamara. He beat Amukamara off the line, but Amukamara recovered quickly and was right on Adams’ hip as they ran side-by-side down the sidelines.

Aaron Rodgers saw the back of Amukamara’s helmet and no safety help and threw a great touch pass just over the cornerback’s head. Amukamara was in Adams’ face, pawing at the receiver as he went up for the ball. It didn’t bother Adams at all, and he came down with the outstretched catch for a big 28-yard gain that set up the game-tying touchdown.

The NFC has three other receivers with 100 or more catches — Minnesota’s Adam Thielen (105),  New Orleans’ Michael Thomas (102) and Atlanta’s Julio Jones (100). With at least five receivers making the NFC Pro Bowl roster, Adams appears to be a shoo-in to return to that game when selections are announced Tuesday after making it as an injury replacement last season.

Extra points

» Chicago’s Khalil Mack had 2½ sacks and was the best player on the field Sunday, but Packers backup tackle Jason Spriggs actually didn’t fare too badly against one of the game’s premier outside rushers.

The Packers gave Spriggs help on occasion, sometimes with tight end Jimmy Graham chipping on his way out on a pass pattern. And no one’s suggesting Spriggs came close to getting a draw. But he had his share of plays where he was matched with Mack one-on-one, and he won more of them than you might have predicted. Spriggs also had a good block on Jamaal Williams’ 10-yard touchdown run in the third quarter when he got his hips around to seal Bears outside linebacker Leonard Floyd off from the edge, which gave Williams the corner and clear path to the end zone.

» Outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell had a couple pressures on Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky on Sunday, but he has now gone four straight games without a sack after his three-sack outburst at Seattle in mid-November. That has to temper any excitement the Packers felt about his pass rushing earlier in the season. But Fackrell has made big strides as a run defender. He’s holding the edge much better than earlier in his career, as he did early in the first quarter when he forced Howard to run so far laterally to get the corner that Josh Jones was able to come up from safety and drop the running back for a one-yard loss.

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