Packers parting ways with defensive coordinator Mike Pettine
GREEN BAY - Mike Pettine will not return as the Green Bay Packers' defensive coordinator for the 2021 season, the team said Friday.
Pettine, originally hired by coach Mike McCarthy, was the Packers' defensive coordinator the past three seasons. He spent the past two years under Matt LaFleur, an arranged marriage of sorts after the Packers hired LaFleur following the 2018 season. The two had never worked together, though they had common contacts in the league.
Pettine's contract expired at season's end, meaning he coached this past season knowing it could be his last with the Packers. Assistant coaches typically work under two-year deals, but Pettine did not have a year tacked onto his contract following the 2019 season.
The Packers will be looking for their third defensive coordinator in the past five seasons. Pettine succeeded Dom Capers, who was fired after the 2017 season following nine years of coordinating under McCarthy.
A source said LaFleur plans a full-on search for a placement. That doesn't mean defensive backs coach Jerry Gray, a former defensive coordinator in Buffalo and Tennessee whom LaFleur hired before the 2020 season, won't get the job. But LaFleur wants to interview a number of people before making a decision.
Under Pettine, the Packers' defense saw unquestioned improvement. Pettine inherited a defense that had finished 22nd (348.9 per game) in yards and 26th (24 points per game) in scoring in Capers' final season. The Packers ranked ninth in yards (334) and 13th in scoring (23.1) in 2020. It was their first year finishing top 10 in yards since 2010.
The Packers had a talent infusion on the defensive side in 2019. General manager Brian Gutekunst signed three defensive starters that spring: outside linebackers Za’Darius and Preston Smith along with safety Adrian Amos. The defense took a big jump that season, including finishing ninth in the league with 19.8 points allowed per game, but the year ended on a sour note in the NFC championship game at San Francisco. The Packers gave up 285 rushing yards against the 49ers, a breakdown made worse by Pettine’s quip earlier in the season that it was faster to fly to Miami, site of the Super Bowl, than run there.
The Packers refocused on the run game in 2020. After finishing 23rd against the run (120.1 rushing yards per game) in 2019, the Packers ranked 13th against the run (112.8) in 2020. There was regression in other areas, most notably in turnovers. The Packers tied for 25th with 18 takeaways in 2020, a year after they were tied for seventh with 25 takeaways.
Even still, Pettine felt he had a better defense entering the 2020 playoffs than one year earlier.
“I do think we have a better feel,” Pettine said earlier this month, comparing his defense to a year ago. “The one thing that we have right now that I don’t think you can put a price on is that we’re confident."
LaFleur, who calls offensive plays and devises the game plan on that side of the ball, will now get a chance to hire his own coordinator to work in lockstep with him in the future. He knew of Pettine before being hired as the Packers' head coach. LaFleur's mentor, San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, worked as Pettine's offensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns. But the two had never worked together, and at times this season there seemed to be a disconnect between them.
The most glaring example came after Sunday's loss in the NFC championship game. At the end of the first half, the Packers gave up a back-breaking touchdown on a 39-yard pass from Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady to receiver Scotty Miller. The Packers were in man-to-man coverage with only one safety deep, allowing Miller to beat cornerback Kevin King down the left side before safety Will Redmond could help.
LaFleur highlighted that touchdown as one that turned the game.
"Definitely not the right call for the situation," LaFleur said. "You can't do stuff like that against a good football team and expect to win."
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After the Packers clinched the No. 1 seed in their finale at Chicago, LaFleur was asked about the defense's late-season turnaround. He was complimentary but also offered a blunt critique about how the secondary aligned its coverage, calling for more press at the line of scrimmage.
"There's some times where I think we can be a little bit more aggressive just in terms of our mentality," LaFleur said. "Some of those third downs and fourth-down conversions, a third-and-short, I want us to get up in people's faces and challenge them. Because I think we've got the people that can get that done, especially when you look at our corner situation."
LaFleur showed confidence in Pettine until the end. His decision to kick a field goal on fourth-and-goal with just more than two minutes left Sunday was an analytical decision, but also showed trust in the Packers' defense. LaFleur tasked the defense with getting the ball back from Brady, a gamble that ultimately failed when the Bucs converted a pair of third downs. The second came on a defensive pass interference against King, who regressed this season and also allowed a pair of first-half touchdowns Sunday.
Where the Packers go from here is unclear. This will be the biggest hire in LaFleur’s short tenure with the Packers. LaFleur is expected to tab assistant special teams coach Maurice Drayton as his replacement for special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga, whose firing was made official Friday. Because of LaFleur’s intent focus on the offensive side, his defensive coordinator will be especially important.
Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed.