Aaron Nagler speaks with Michael Cohen about the biggest challenges facing the new Packers defensive coordinator as he starts to make Green Bay's defense his own. (Jan. 10, 2018) USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
In Dom Capers’ first season as their coordinator, the Green Bay Packers became a top-10 defense.
They finished 2009 ranked seventh in the NFL in points allowed, second in yards allowed and fourth in defensive passer rating.
That year, they also drafted Clay Matthews.
That’s worth remembering because over the next half year we’re going to hear all sorts of good things about coach Mike McCarthy’s replacement for Capers, Mike Pettine.
If it’s like the Packers’ other defensive coordinator hires over the past 25 years, we’re going to hear from people who have worked with Pettine about how bright he is, and how much players like him and his scheme. We’re going to hear about aggressiveness and blitzing.
No doubt there’s a lot to like. Pettine’s record as a defensive coordinator was good enough to get him a shot as the Cleveland Browns coach for two years. In seven seasons as a defensive coordinator or head coach, his defenses had three top-10 finishes in points allowed and six top-10 finishes in defensive passer rating.
You can see why McCarthy hired him, whether or not Vic Fangio (likely staying with the Chicago Bears) and Gus Bradley (re-signed with the Los Angeles Chargers) might have been preferred choices.
But let’s not forget that a lot of this is about player talent, too. The Packers immediately got better when former GM Ted Thompson drafted Matthews in the first round in ’09. If new GM Brian Gutekunst can’t find another player or two of that caliber, or at least close to it, it probably doesn’t matter who’s calling the shots on the Packers’ defense.
On the best defenses Pettine coached, as Rex Ryan’s coordinator with the New York Jets from 2009-12, he had a future Pro Football Hall of Famer, cornerback Darrelle Revis, in his prime. He also had standouts in linebackers David Harris and Bart Scott, cornerback Antonio Cromartie and defensive lineman Shaun Ellis.
In Pettine’s one season as Buffalo’s defensive coordinator (2013), he had a dominant defensive line (Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus).
He’s not walking into that kind of talent with the Packers.
That’s not to suggest coaching doesn’t matter. When Capers came to the Packers, he found in Charles Woodson the perfect match for his playmaking nickel cornerback. Woodson was already a great player, but in his first season with Capers, he was the NFL’s defensive player of the year. Capers got the most out of Woodson’s abundant physical and mental abilities.
McCarthy will be looking for Pettine to likewise connect with a couple players on the Packers’ roster, and get more from them than they’ve shown so far. He inherits two good interior defensive linemen in Mike Daniels and the ascending Kenny Clark. If cornerback Kevin King (shoulder) doesn’t turn out to be damaged goods, he has a lot to work with. Same for talented but error-prone Josh Jones. Or maybe Pettine can get safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix back to playing good football again.
But the Packers need more talent, too. If they don’t find some pass rushers and a cornerback, it’s hard to see their defense rising from the bottom quarter of the league. Scheme and playcalling matter, but you have to win some one-on-one battles, too.
Pettine’s hiring comes at a time when coaches have to make a philosophical call about their defensive schemes: Do they lean toward the simple, so players are sure about their assignments and adjustments, but the offense knows what’s coming? Or do they lean complex to maximize offensive confusion but with the greater risk of coverage mistakes?
“This is the decision making that can make or break coaches,” said an offensive assistant for an NFL team I talked with Wednesday.
Capers was on the complex side, which produced good results in ’09 and ’10. But as the talent declined — Woodson and later Matthews to age, Nick Collins and Sam Shields to career-ending injuries — the coverage, assignment and technique errors grew. That probably as much as anything got Capers fired.
At the other end of the spectrum is Pete Carroll’s defense in Seattle, which is spreading through the NFL as his assistants get jobs elsewhere. It might be the simplest in the league, but his players know what they’re supposed to do each week because they don’t have so many combinations of matchups to remember. (Of course, having Michael Bennett, Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Bobby Wagner matters, too.)
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick is known for using radically different game plans from week to week, even morphing between 3-4 and 4-3 alignments. But according to the aforementioned coach, Belichick’s plan in any given week isn’t complicated.
That’s what made Bradley, the former Seahawks coordinator and Jacksonville Jaguars coach, an interesting possibility before he re-signed with the Chargers on Wednesday.
“The best defenses are not the most complicated,” the assistant coach said. “They never have been. The best defenses are the simple ones that know their adjustments.”
By choosing Pettine, who runs Ryan’s defense, McCarthy is staying on the complicated end of the spectrum.
Multiple coverages, looks and blitzes present challenges, which the assistant coach talked through Wednesday. He hadn’t faced a Pettine defense for several years but has gone against Capers regularly over the years and spoke of the difficulty preparing for everything Capers might use. The coach and his colleagues always worried that they’d diluted their practice reps trying to be ready for everything they might see. It was a real problem.
But he’d still prefer to face that than a simpler defense that rarely blew coverages.
“If you play one defense — and you have your blitzes but you basically have one defense — the (defensive) players know the adjustments to everything,” he said. “Trips, one back, no back, they know all the adjustments. But you have five different defenses, they're going to (screw) up a blitz, (screw) up an adjustment.”
This was McCarthy’s call, and he made it. Pettine is his guy.
Pettine’s resume and reputation are good. It’s on new Gutekunst to make sure his players are, too.
Aaron Nagler hosted a Facebook Live session with readers, discussing all the latest Packers news and taking questions. (Jan. 10, 2018) Aaron Nagler | USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin