Maybe this will sound familiar if you’ve followed the Green Bay Packers the last few years:
“Indeed, the defense may be too complicated for its own good. … Simply put, the (players) are spending so much time figuring out ways to trick the offense, they're leaving themselves little to no margin for error.”
No, this wasn’t another critique of former Packers coordinator Dom Capers’ defense, which had a reputation for being complex because it required extensive checks and call changes at the line of scrimmage. It was written in 2015 by Kevin Jones, a former writer for the Cleveland Browns’ website, in a freelance piece for SI.com, based on off-the-record conversations with Browns defensive players. It was about then-Browns coach Mike Pettine’s defense.
Which of course raises the question, if too much complexity was one of the issues with Capers’ defense, is coach Mike McCarthy’s hiring of Pettine any kind of remedy?
Let’s start by saying that this seems to be a common criticism of defensive coordinators around the NFL. Any defensive coordinator who’s failing is open to almost any critique. These aren’t the first coordinators who’ve been accused of getting players so wrapped up in making checks and adjustments that they’re thinking more than reacting once the ball is snapped.
We should always remember, much in this league still comes down to players. Good players make plays that win games. The Packers’ defensive shortcomings the last several years could come down more to that than anything. They just haven’t had enough difference makers.
That said, coaching surely matters, a lot. So I asked several players early in training camp how the complexity of Pettine’s defense compares with Capers’. Here’s what I found:
When Capers joined the Packers in 2009, he had about 150 calls in his playbook. He’d whittle that to less than a third for weekly game plans, but his playbook was extensive.
The number remained in that vicinity for most of Capers’ tenure with the Packers, though he cut it back the last couple seasons. Last year it was down to about 90.
Still, Pettine’s new playbook with the Packers this season has only about 50 calls.
That is by design. In a news conference in May, Pettine described how playbooks grow more complex over the years as coaches add contingency after contingency for ever-evolving schemes on the other side of the ball. But in the last two years, while he was out of coaching after the Browns fired him, he pared his playbook.
“I was able to break it down to nothing and then build it back up and took out a lot of things that didn’t make sense,” Pettine said.
For the same reason that the playbook is shrinking, so are Pettine’s game plans.
When Pettine was the Jets’ defensive coordinator in 2009 and ’10, he said he’d often go into games with 50 or 55 calls in his game plan. But the current CBA signed in 2011 has restricted offseason practice time and contributed to rosters skewing heavily to young players on their rookie contracts who don’t know defensive schemes as well as older veterans.
So Pettine says he’s planning to go into games this season with only 25 to 30 calls that can be taught and rehearsed thoroughly throughout the week.
“I know I’ve done it in the past where you kind of get that security blanket where, ‘You know I have 50 calls and everything’s covered,’” Pettine said, “but it’s 50 calls that you might not necessarily be as dialed in as you should be if you pick the best 25.”
That alone doesn’t mean Pettine’s defense won’t be complex. The whole idea behind the Rex Ryan-Pettine scheme is to confuse quarterbacks with unfamiliar looks and send unexpected blitz combinations. That means complexity, because players can line up anywhere and everywhere, and they have to know what they’re doing in each spot.
But there has to be a certain amount of complexity for Pettine to be who he is. Cornerback Tramon Williams said he learned in his one season with Pettine in Cleveland (2015) that one of the new coordinator’s strengths is his ability to manipulate pass protections in the chess game with the offense.
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“We show ’em what we want to show ’em,” Williams said, “then we get them to check to what we want them to check, and then we send a blitz from somewhere else, where they think it’s not coming. He knows that.”
Now, maybe it was less scheme that led to Capers’ downfall, and more the inertia of having been with the Packers for so long. You might remember that Capers had turned around the Packers’ defense early in his tenure. In his first season (’09), the Packers improved from No. 22 in points allowed and No. 20 in yards allowed to Nos. 7 and 2, and then to Nos. 2 and 5 in his second year, when the Packers won the Super Bowl.
Former first-round pick Damarious Randall’s petulance got him a one-way ticket out of town this offseason, but he probably spoke the truth immediately after the final game when he complained that players who made multiple mental mistakes weren’t being benched.
“One of the things that we wanted to see was guys being held accountable,” linebacker Clay Matthews said last week. “It sounds like from the offseason and the little bit of time we’ve had so far in training camp, that’s what (Pettine’s defense) is going to be about.
“It’s also going to be about being intimidating and getting after the quarterback. When you turn on the film we want it to be something that stands out. I think we’re instilling that mentality.”
What this translates into for the Packers in 2018, well, none of us knows the future. There’s always excitement and promises of aggressiveness with the fresh start of a new coordinator in any NFL town. So it is with Pettine, who makes a great early impression as a smart, tough, direct guy with a dry sense of humor.
But at this point, it’s all just words, promises, guesses and predictions. It will be settled only by what happens on the field.