Dougherty: Packers should expect more after defensive overhaul

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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In March, Brian Gutekunst signed three defensive free agents to contracts that average a combined $38.5 million a year.

Then in April’s NFL draft, the Green Bay Packers general manager spent two first-round picks on that side of the ball.

That is the makeover of all makeovers. No GM in the NFL made as many big-ticket moves on defense this offseason as the Packers.

But just what exactly should this mean for 2019? After all, this team hasn’t fielded a defense that finished in the top 10 in fewest points or yards allowed since 2010, when it last won the Super Bowl. The Packers have been in a defensive rebuild pretty much ever since.

After Gutekunst’s overhaul, what exactly should the standard be for defensive coordinator Mike Pettine?

I asked one longtime NFL assistant this week, and his answer was specific and succinct: If he were with the Packers, he’d be looking to field the best defense in the NFC North in 2019.

Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine during practice at Clarke Hinkle Field on Wednesday, May 29, 2019 in Ashwaubenon, Wis.

That’s a high bar. The NFC North includes the Chicago Bears, who traded for one of the game’s dominant defensive players (Khalil Mack) last year and went on to allow the fewest points in the league, and the Minnesota Vikings, who were ninth in points allowed last season after finishing first the previous year.

“I’d say (that still should be the Packers’ thinking),” the coach said. “Otherwise you have to ask yourself the question, if you spend that much money on free agents and the draft on offense, and go out and get some marquee guy to help Aaron Rodgers do some things — that’s the part I’d be wondering about.”

As things sit now, two months before the start of training camp, it’s hard to see the Packers’ defense surpassing the Bears’ in 2019. But the Packers’ standard still should be a lot higher than it’s been. They really should crack the NFL’s top 10 in fewest points allowed for the first time in nine long, long years.

Deceiving stat

Not that any single stat tells the whole story. Last year the Packers finished No. 8 in sacks, but anyone who watched this team knows it didn’t have one of the league’s better pass rushes.

Gutekunst and Pettine certainly didn’t think so. Three of the new players (free agents Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, and top draft pick Rashan Gary) are pass rushers.

“I didn't have to tell (Gutekunst) after the season, he knew what the deficiencies were,” Pettine said recently. “Certainly wanted to add some big, explosive athletes on defense, and he did that.”

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Still, points allowed is what defensive football is all about, and a top-10 finish would be as good a sign as any that Gutekunst’s offseason moves were worth the high cost. Otherwise, as the aforementioned assistant coach said, what might the Packers have done with some of that money and one of those two first-round picks to get a lot better on the offensive side of the ball?

Even with the cash Gutekunst spent, Pettine still doesn’t have a premier pass rusher, though that hasn’t been a feature of his past defenses, either. Of the eight defenses he ran as the coordinator or head coach, only one, Buffalo, had a player you might characterize as a dominant talent, Mario Williams in Buffalo in 2013.

In Pettine’s four seasons with the New York Jets, for instance, he never had a player finish with more than 6½ sacks, yet two of those teams finished in the top six in scoring defense. In his two seasons as Cleveland’s coach, he had only one double-digit sacker, and that was Paul Kruger (11 in 2014), who was hardly a top talent.

What Pettine has with the Packers now is a collection of rushers who are big for their positions and somewhat interchangeable. Gary is 277 pounds, Za’Darius Smith 272 and Preston Smith 265. That’s huge for guys listed as outside linebackers.

Tackles Kenny Clark (314) and Mike Daniels (310), likewise, are big even for inside rushers. Kyler Fackrell (245) is the lone lightweight of the bunch.

Pass-rushing rotation

Pettine’s plan is to rotate those players liberally to keep them fresh, and to keep offenses guessing on where they’re going to line up on passing downs. Za’Darius Smith and Gary, especially, have the size and play styles to rush from anywhere along the defensive front. Smith said he probably rushed as much on the inside as outside last season, when he had 8½ sacks for Baltimore. Gary already has been lining up inside and outside in the nickel in offseason practices.

The question is whether this group’s rush will be greater than the sum of its separate past.

Gary presumably is the most physically gifted — his uncommon combination of size and athleticism is why he went No. 12 overall — but he had only nine sacks total in his last two seasons at Michigan. Za’Darius Smith’s 8½ sacks last year were his career high, and Preston Smith has averaged just slightly more than six sacks in his four NFL seasons.

Clark and Daniels have been effective inside rushers for the Packers, but neither has had more than 6½ sacks in a season. And what are the chances Fackrell (10½ sacks last year) puts up a second double-digit sacks season?

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A good season for Pettine won’t necessarily mean having a top-five sacker, though. If all six of those players finish with between five and 10 sacks, the Packers very well might be onto something. The Seattle Seahawks used to overwhelm quarterbacks more with waves of fresh rushers, and less because of any one or two players.

Sacks also won’t be the lone measure of the rush. Interceptions will be an indication, too. Last year, the Packers’ seven interceptions, tied for 29th in the league, and their defensive passer rating (100.9) was 28th. Those two numbers say more about their rush than the No. 7 finish in sacks.

They signed Adrian Amos at safety to be one of the quarterbacks of the defense, and they drafted Darnell Savage Jr. to play center field as a ball hawk with the speed (4.36 second 40) to break on the ball. And they added the three rushers to put the kind of heat on quarterbacks that induces bad throws.

“We don’t have the same players as last year,” second-year cornerback Jaire Alexander said. “The players are going to really be what makes it pop.”

All the changes look good in theory, that much is true. But the proof will come only on the field. And that means ending the Packers’ nine-year drought from playing top-10 defense.

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