Dougherty: Packers coordinator Mike Pettine downplays defensive complexity

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine talks about his new role with the team on Jan. 24, 2018, at Lambeau Field.

If you were wondering why Mike Pettine didn’t coach football the last two years, it’s because he was, in his own words, “beat up physically, mentally” after two seasons as the Cleveland Browns’ head coach.

Pettine, who met with local media Wednesday for the first time since his hiring as the Green Bay Packers’ defensive coordinator, wasn’t completely out of football since being fired at the end of the 2015 season because of a 10-22 record with the Browns.

He did a handful of scouting projects for friends in the league in 2016. Then last year he consulted with the Seattle Seahawks, working mostly offsite, as an advance and self-scout for coach Pete Carroll.

But Pettine could afford time away from the daily grind because he still was being paid by the Browns, who for two decades have been the NFL’s poster child for franchise dysfunction. Jimmy Haslam is entering his eighth season as owner and has hired three head coaches and four general managers in that time.

“It took me a while until I felt like I could smell smells and see colors,” Pettine said.

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Pettine, 51, takes over a Packers defense that failed to crack the top 10 in points or yards in the last seven seasons and ranked in the 20s in both categories the last two years. That got Dom Capers fired after the season.

Pettine was a safe hire for coach Mike McCarthy because he has the pedigree of a coordinator whose defenses were good enough to get him a head-coaching job in the NFL. But one of the biggest questions is whether Pettine’s scheme skews too far to the complex side of the spectrum for today’s NFL, where a third of the roster turns over yearly, offseason rules limit how much time coaches can work with players, and the salary cap means young players often have to play.

The Packers’ coverage breakdowns the last few years helped get Capers fired, and there were pundits and scouts around the league who thought the complexity of his scheme was the culprit.

As a Rex Ryan protégé, Pettine also runs a defense known for mixing multiple fronts and coverages. Pettine, though, disputed the characterization that his defense is as complex as it might seem.

“We like to appear multiple without necessarily putting that much stuff in,” he said Wednesday. “So, it’s not a system that is overwhelming to learn.”

Pettine also said the NFL has changed since his early seasons as a member of the Baltimore Ravens' coaching staff starting in 2002. He said that at that time it was common to have 50 to 60 different defensive calls for a game, but now it’s 20 to 25. He also acknowledged that there is some complexity.

“As a coach you have to adjust,” he said. “But no, you look at us you’re going to see we’re going to be multiple and we’re going to be aggressive.”

McCarthy said he barely knew Pettine before interviewing him this offseason, though he received high recommendations from people he trusted in the league. In their news conferences Wednesday, both emphasized the importance of creating uncertainty in opposing quarterbacks. McCarthy clearly thinks the Packers didn’t disguise their coverages well enough in recent seasons.

“There’s specific areas that we need to improve on on defense, starting with the pre-snap,” McCarthy said.

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On passing downs, Pettine tries to create that uncertainty by lining up his cornerbacks in one-on-one coverage and bringing most everyone else to the line of scrimmage. Occasionally they all rush, but often some rush and others drop into coverage, and the offense can’t be sure who will do what.

“If NFL quarterbacks know what you’re in pre-snap, you’re in trouble,” Pettine said. “I think the disguise element and mixing up coverages and making things look similar but having the ability to play something different out of it — that chess-game part of it — I think is important.”

Though the Packers haven’t played good defense for a while now — last year they finished No. 26 in points, No. 22 in yards and No. 31 in defensive passer rating — that doesn’t mean a quick turnaround is a long shot.

When McCarthy hired Capers in 2009, the Packers were coming off a 2008 season in which they were No. 22 in points and No. 20 in yards. In ’09, Capers finished seventh in points and second in yards. Remember, though, the Packers drafted Clay Matthews that season, and he proved to be an immediate difference maker.

Whether Pettine’s versatile defense is more 3-4 or 4-3 really is inconsequential. He said he can switch between the two easily, with outside linebackers such as Matthews or Nick Perry standing up or putting a hand on the ground depending on circumstances. In today’s NFL, teams are in either nickel or dime on at least 80 percent of their defensive snaps, which means they’re a 4-3 defense a huge majority of the time anyway.

The key for Pettine will be tailoring his scheme to the strengths of Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark, Perry, Matthews, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Damarious Randall, Kevin King, Josh Jones and Blake Martinez.

For much of Pettine’s time with the Jets, his outside linebackers, Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas, were interchangeable as rushers and in coverage, so each played both roles. But as defensive coordinator in Buffalo, Pettine had a superior rusher in Mario Williams, so Williams rushed almost all the time, whereas Manny Lawson did more of a mix of rushing and coverage on the other side.

“You can’t win with players you don’t have,” Pettine said. “So you have to assess who’s on campus and how can we best build the defense to take advantage of their skill sets.”

Pettine gave little indication of his plans for Matthews, who at age 31 hasn’t reached double digits in sacks the last two seasons. Matthews can play edge rusher or a more traditional linebacker, and Pettine talked about that versatility as making it more difficult for defenses to know where Matthews will line up. Of course, Capers and McCarthy have been saying that the last two years.

More important than scheme, though, will be upgrading the talent on defense. In ’09, Matthews made at least as big a difference as Capers in pushing the Packers’ defense into the top 10.

McCarthy said he’s already met with new GM Brian Gutekunst to go over the trait description for every position in Pettine’s scheme.

“We need to add players to our roster,” McCarthy said. “That’s clearly a focus."

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