GREEN BAY — The Green Bay Packers coaching staff bears little resemblance to the one that finished the season a month ago.
There are new coaches, new duties, a new structure.
Nothing, however, matters more than the guy coach Mike McCarthy hired to run the Packers’ beleaguered defense. If new coordinator Mike Pettine can’t get the defense to perform better than it did for the deposed Dom Capers, the Packers will remain an underachieving team — with or without quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the lineup.
There are many reasons to be optimistic that McCarthy’s selection of Pettine, the former head coach at Cleveland, will upgrade a defense that slipped to 22nd in the NFL last year and hasn’t been ranked in the top 10 since 2010.
For one thing, we’ve seen the track record of Pettine, a disciple of defensive guru Rex Ryan. In five seasons as an NFL coordinator — four with the New York Jets, one with Buffalo — his defenses never ranked outside of the top 10.
Second, we’ve heard the testimonials. University of Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, who played for Pettine at four different stops, praised his flexibility and creativity. Ryan called Pettine the smartest guy in the room and predicted he’ll be the best coordinator in the league.
McCarthy introduced his new-look staff Wednesday, giving reporters a chance to talk to Pettine for the first time even though he’s been on the job for two weeks.
“I thought Mike really knocked it out of the park,” McCarthy said of Pettine’s interview. “I knew early in the process that he was the right man for the job.”
Packers fans likely will need some convincing after years of watching a defense that was declining in talent, suffered from communication breakdowns and couldn’t contain elite passing attacks. Still, there is much to like about Pettine taking over the defense and nothing that was said Wednesday diminished that.
First and foremost, Pettine is a coach who adapts to the talent he has.
“At the end of the day, every system that we have here — offense, defense and special teams — is built around our players,” McCarthy said. “It’s about making our players successful. We don’t try to put square pegs in a round hole.”
Too often, Capers got caught doing that. He had a preferred defensive system but, due to injuries and shaky drafting, often didn’t have talent that fit it. That caused him to play conservatively, leaving the middle of the field wide open for exploitation in the passing game.
Although he came up in a 3-4 defensive scheme, Pettine said such designations are meaningless in the modern NFL. The key, he added, is getting players to play with great technique and great passion regardless of the scheme.
“The cornerstone for us is going to be, first of all, fundamentally sound, smart football,” Pettine said. “We coach the heck out of the little details. If you want to get into the schematic stuff, I like to appear multiple. I know people have said the system can be very complicated, but we like to appear multiple without necessarily putting that much stuff in.”
That’s important because the Packers’ draft-and-develop philosophy often left Capers with young players operating in a complex defense. Pettine may get a few more veterans from new general manager Brian Gutekunst, but he’s already made concessions in his scheme as the league has skewed younger.
“It’s not a system that is overwhelming to learn,” he said. “The league has changed. When I first got in the league, it was easy to put in 50 or 60 defenses for a game. Now, you’re 20 to 25. Why? Because a lot of time you’re dealing with young players that haven’t been veteran guys in a system that know it and also you’re dealing with the new CBA where you have limited time to get with them, especially in the offseason, for them to learn that foundation. I think as a coach you have to adjust. But (when) you look at us you’re going to see we’re going to be multiple and we’re going to be aggressive.”
In what certainly will be music to the ears of Packers fans, Pettine said stopping the pass, especially on third down, has become the No. 1 priority in the NFL. Confusing the quarterback before the snap and being disruptive afterward are the key components of his pass defense.
“I think you still have to be sound against the run, but you lose a heck of a lot faster when you’re giving up chunks in the passing game than you are necessarily in the run game,” Pettine said.
“It’s critical to win on early downs, but the pass part of it is huge. You have to find a way to affect the quarterback. If you’re not sacking him, you’re hitting him, you’re getting knockdowns, you’re getting hurries and you’re in his head a little bit. And you’re changing it up. Coach (McCarthy) talked about winning the pre-snap. That’s always been an important aspect of our system. If NFL quarterbacks know what you’re in pre-snap, you’re in trouble. 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. That’s something we’re going to emphasize.”
We won’t know for sure until the fall, but that sounds pretty good right now.