Mike Pettine's Packers run defense 'played our worst game at the worst time' in blowout loss to 49ers

Ryan Wood
Packers News
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San Francisco 49ers running back Raheem Mostert, center, scores a touchdown next to Green Bay Packers cornerback Tramon Williams (38) during the second half of the NFL NFC Championship football game Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

GREEN BAY - It was the type of game that could shake a coach to his core. Use any superlative you’d like: The Green Bay Packers run defense was befuddled, annihilated, flat-out embarrassed in San Francisco.

That it happened on such a large stage – 60 minutes from the Super Bowl – only amplified the problems. Four months later, speaking publicly for the first time since his defense was devastated in the NFC championship game, coordinator Mike Pettine’s frustration Friday was still apparent.

“I can’t use any other phrase,” Pettine said, “other than beyond disappointing. It’s tough to realize that we played our worst game at the worst time. But at the same point, we own it. We’re not running away from it. I mean, we went through it in detail with the staff. We talked to the players about it. There’s no excuses being offered. We just weren’t good enough in every aspect, whether it was scheme, effort, energy, technique.

“The key thing is to learn from it so it doesn’t happen again.”

Here’s what Pettine won’t do: panic. Neither will Matt LaFleur. A few days after returning from San Francisco, the Packers coach temporarily threw Packerland into a tizzy when asked about Pettine’s potential return. His answer – “we’re still working through everything right now” – seemed to suggest LaFleur was open to changing defensive coordinators, perhaps a knee-jerk reaction to the drubbing the Packers' defense had just been handed.

In truth, Pettine knew his future before his boss took the podium. He and LaFleur had already conducted their exit interview, a “very positive” conversation that pointed to the future, Pettine said Friday.

“There was never a moment,” Pettine said, “where I felt I would be anywhere but in Green Bay. I know (LaFleur) addressed it at the combine, but since the meeting that we had even before his interview, that he and I had been full speed ahead, so it was not something. I know a lot was made of it. It was an unfortunate thing because I think he was making comments that were more based on the general, just talking about the staff in general evaluation, as opposed to getting specific.

“There was a little angst with my wife about it, but other than that, no, I was fine with it. Because as I said, I already knew. He and I had already kind of reviewed the season and talked through a lot of stuff defensively. So we were very much on the same page.”

With Pettine at the helm for his third season leading the Packers' defense, the burden of fixing that mess in San Francisco falls on him. Yes, the drubbing was enough to tempt any coach to rethink some things, particularly after Pettine quipped early last season it’s a lot faster to fly to Miami, site of Super Bowl LIV, than it is to walk there.

Turned out, running to Miami was an acceptable option.

Pettine, keeping with his trademark cool, reiterated Friday the NFL remains a “passing league.” No, he isn’t scrapping his core principles after the 49ers rushed for an unfathomable 285 yards. “We teach it the same way,” he said. But run defense will be a “huge point of emphasis” this fall, especially the need to maintain sound gap control, something LaFleur mentioned when he spoke with reporters last week, and Pettine said multiple times last fall.

“It’s something,” Pettine said, “we’ve devoted a lot of time to studying, looking, compare what we’re doing and what we’re coaching to other teams. We don’t just blindly think, ‘Hey, I’m not going to look at anything else. We have all the answers.’ But we wanted to make sure that when we break down our negative plays, we look at a bunch of different factors. We look at, was this a schematic thing? Is there something scheme-wise that’s flawed that they took advantage of? Was this a technique thing? Did we give up a big play because we executed the wrong technique? Was it bad footwork or something along those lines? Or was it a personnel thing? Was it's imply their X was better than our O?

“Each of those answers have corresponding response to it. If it’s a scheme thing, we need to fix it or take it out. If it’s a technique thing, we have to make sure that goes on our priority list of things that we need to practice. And if it’s a personnel thing, then we find a way to roll that lineup and get the best guys out there that are capable of doing.”

Pettine said the Packers’ breakdown in San Francisco was a total failure, pointing to every facet of the game.

The Packers didn’t draft a defensive lineman this spring, meaning improvement will need to come from within. After losing Blake Martinez in free agency, the only additions to the second level were veteran Christian Kirksey (who has played only nine games the past two seasons because of injury) and fifth-round pick Kamal Martin.

So schematics or technique might be the clearest areas to improve. But Pettine isn’t overhauling his playbook. Something that won’t change, he said, is the aggressiveness he expects his defensive linemen to play off the snap.

“One of the things we’re not going to do,” Pettine said, “is teach our guys, ‘Hey, this is your gap. You absolutely, 100 percent need to stay in it.’ Because we talk about up front, d-line especially, we want to get knock back. We don’t want to play lateral at the line of scrimmage. We want to be aggressive up front. If I’m lined up outside shade of the guard, and I knock him two yards back in the backfield and my helmet ends up in the A-gap, so be it. That’s a win. You’re out of your gap, but the distance that we’ve created with the knock back gives the linebackers a chance to overlap it. That’s a concept that takes some linebackers a little bit longer to learn, but it’s something that we believe in, that we don’t want to play lateral. We want to attack up the field.

“So we’re big believers in our system. When it’s executed correctly, we can play run damn well in pretty good stretches.”

With minimal personnel upgrades, the Packers can expect opposing offenses to run at them this fall. Their struggles are clear for the league to see. Pettine knows that.

He also knows few offenses are as equipped to run a defense into submission as the 49ers. Kyle Shanahan’s outside-zone scheme is perhaps the best rushing attack in the league, and the 49ers head coach has the personnel to execute it proficiently.

The Packers were challenged on the ground throughout last season. Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook rushed 20 times in September. Denver’s Phillip Lindsay and Oakland’s Josh Jacobs rushed 21 times apiece. Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey, perhaps the NFL’s top running back, ran 20 times.

The Packers won all four games.

Pettine believes the 49ers are an exception.

“It was a tough pill to swallow,” Pettine said. “You’re always remembered by your last performance, and I hate for it to tarnish what we were able to accomplish during the year when we won 14 games. We’re not going to do that and be this dark cloud hanging over us, but at the same time it’s not going to be something we sweep under the carpet. We’ll address it, and we’ll do it again when the players are in town, and it’s face to face.”

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