GREEN BAY – At midweek, Mike Pettine was making no promises about his new-look Green Bay Packers defense. But he certainly wasn’t interested in putting on a show in a game that didn’t count.
And so, the new defensive coordinator definitely didn’t empty his playbook in Thursday night’s preseason opener against the Tennessee Titans. Not only was he playing without roughly half his starters — because of injuries or because there was no point in risking their health in a meaningless game — but he didn’t see the point of giving the Chicago Bears’ advance scouts much to go on in advance of the first game that really counts, on Sept. 9 at Lambeau Field.
Past defensive coordinators had arrived and announced their preseason presence with authority – Bob Slowik in 2004, Jim Bates in 2005 and Dom Capers in 2009 — by sending a wide variety of blitzes against their opening exhibition opponents, not caring that regular-season foes were seeing what they were doing. While Pettine was eager to see how his guys would look in game action, he took a different tack, taking a decidedly vanilla approach during the Packers’ 31-17 victory over the Titans.
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said the biggest difference between Capers’ approach in his first preseason game and Pettine’s on Thursday night was timing. In 2009, Capers was bringing a foreign blitz-heavy scheme to a team that hadn’t been pressure-oriented on defense under Bob Sanders. Now, Pettine’s approach isn’t a stark departure from Capers’ scheme.
“One thing that we made a big point with our team — really from the first day or training camp and (it) was reiterated today in the team meeting — is ‘mindset over scheme,’” McCarthy explained. “This was not a scheme game. This was about making sure we get our guys (playing time). So, this is an evaluation time.
“Going back to ’09, you know, I know we blitzed a lot (in a 17-0 shutout win over Cleveland). But coming out of the defense that we were in before Dom got here, it was a defense that didn’t blitz a lot. So you have to learn how to blitz. A pressure defense, there’s a different tempo and speed to it. So that’s something you evaluate.
“Obviously, we’ve been in a pressure defense for quite some time. It’s not as big a concern where we are today as we were back then.”
Instead, Pettine wanted to see how his defenders tackled (something they don’t do during training camp, even when in pads), and how the communication system went (both from player-to-player and from Pettine up in the press box).
“(Tackling) is something that's always kind of an unknown until we get there. We think we have a sense of how it will be and who we think our better tacklers are going to be and who might need some work, but you never know until it's truly live,” Pettine explained. As for communications, Pettine predicted it’d be a good thing for him to be up in the coaches’ box instead of on the field for when things went awry.
“I think the guys will be happy I'm in the booth,” Pettine said, half-kidding. “I can be a bit of a hot-blooded Italian every now and again. I think they'd rather me (be) upstairs than ranting and raving on the sideline.”
There wasn’t much to rave about early on Thursday night. On their opening possession, the Titans drove 71 yards in nine plays en route to a 4-yard Marcus Mariota touchdown pass to Darius Jennings. The big play came on the first third-down play, when wide receiver Nick Williams beat nickelback Quinten Rollins for a 38-yard catch-and-run.
Of course, before losing two cornerbacks during Family Night on Saturday — first-round pick Jaire Alexander suffered a groin injury, and last year’s top draft pick Kevin King injured his shoulder — the Packers hadn’t been working Rollins with No. 1 nickel defense. The Packers were also without veteran cornerback Tramon Williams, as the 35-year-old didn’t have anything to prove by playing in an exhibition opener.
Also among those who didn’t suit up Thursday night on defense were starting outside linebackers Clay Matthews (rest) and Nick Perry (on the physically unable to perform list with an ankle injury); and starting defensive linemen Mike Daniels (quadriceps) and Muhammad Wilkerson (groin). And the Packers pulled three more starters — safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, inside linebacker Blake Martinez and defensive tackle Kenny Clark – after the second series.
Pettine said the coaches went into preseason play with a target number of snaps for each starter and key backup, and the starters figure to get more of that work next week against Pittsburgh or Aug. 24 at Oakland.
“We have an idea. But also, we want a sense of readiness,” Pettine explained. “There are some guys where you maybe had a number in mind, and 'Wow, he's not ready.' Or the exact opposite, where we thought he needed a lot of reps and he's shown that he doesn't. We'll have a plan and an idea, but again have some flexibility with it.”
Making a bid
While the Brett Hundley-DeShone Kizer competition for the No. 1 spot behind starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been the focus throughout the offseason and early in camp, undrafted rookie free agent Tim Boyle threw his helmet into the ring with a sparkling showing despite playing under some disjointed conditions. He finished the night 7 of 15 for 130 yards with two touchdowns for a 116.7 passer rating.
“I’m not worried about the whole quarterback situation. I’m just going to run the offense and see what happens,” Boyle said. “I’m not really shooting for second string or third string. I’m just going to run the offense and let the chips fall where they may.”
Boyle’s biggest play came at the end, when he hit Jake Kumerow for a 52-yard touchdown that gave the Packers their final points of the night.
“That’s what we’re supposed to do as receiver is catch the ball,” Kumerow said. “I ran my route and the ball was on the money. It hit me right in the chest.”
Asked about Rodgers, who has been publicly supportive of him throughout camp, cheering on the sideline after the touchdown, Kumerow replied, “He said, ‘Nice catch. Good job. Keep it up.’ … It gives me a lot of confidence. It’s good to hear. It’s good to get a high-five from 12 and hear him say your name.”
Taking the night off
As expected, Rodgers did not dress Thursday night, marking the third straight summer in which the two-time NFL MVP has sat out the preseason opener.
Five other starters also did not suit up: left tackle David Bakhtiari (ankle); right tackle Bryan Bulaga (knee/rest); left guard Lane Taylor (ankle/rest); wide receiver Randall Cobb (ankle); and tight end Jimmy Graham (knee). None of their injuries are considered serious, including Bakhtiari, who went down on Family Night but said during the week that the injury is a “typical basketball sprained ankle.”
Also missing the game were wide receivers Trevor Davis (hamstring) and Adonis Jennings (shoulder); running backs Aaron Jones (hamstring) and Devante Mays (hamstring); and fullback Joe Kerridge (shoulder).
Safety Josh Jones left the game to be evaluated for a concussion and safety Jermaine Whitehead departed because of a back injury. Neither returned.
If the Packers needed any reminder of how important Bakhtiari and Bulaga are to their offense, their fill-ins provided it.
Kyle Murphy got the start for Bakhtiari at left tackle and was beaten for a sack on a second-and-4 play from the Tennessee 45-yard line on the Packers’ second series. Tennessee’s Harold Landry beat Murphy on the edge and hit Hundley, forcing a fumble that the Packers were fortunate to recover when left guard Lucas Patrick pounced on the loose ball. Later in the half, Murphy was again beaten badly on the edge, forcing Kizer to scramble.
Byron Bell, who got the nod at right tackle ahead of Jason Spriggs, also had his problems. He was whipped by Titans edge rusher Gimel President, who hit Hundley as he was throwing. The ball popped into the air and was intercepted by Tennessee’s Jaylon Brown, putting an end to another promising Hundley-led drive at the Tennessee 33-yard line. Bell was later flagged for holding.
Murphy was still at left tackle to start the second half, while Spriggs got the call at right tackle.
Asked why Bell played ahead of Spriggs, who’d taken most of the first-team snaps in Bulaga’s absence early in camp, McCarthy replied, “Byron earned that opportunity. I mean, we went back and forth. Really something happened so Byron went in front of Jason and we’ll evaluate the tape and see where we go from there.”
Getting his kicks
Rookie punter JK Scott only got two chances to punt. His first had 4.79 seconds of hang time but only traveled 31 yards on a punt that was intended to pin the Titans deep in their own territory. Scott’s second punt looked more like the ones he’s boomed in practice, carrying 52 yards with 4.75 seconds of hang time.
“He probably wanted a little more on (the first punt). It was a drop kick,” McCarthy said. “He’s just so impressive in practice. The 52-yarder, that’s what he does every day. So, I’ve been so impressed with him in practice. It was good to see him kick live out here. Extremely talented young man. Very consistent.”
Lines of communication
Both Pettine and offensive coordinator Joe Philbin worked the game from the coaches’ box. McCarthy alluded to a few communication breakdowns among the coaches but did not delve into specifics.
“I’m glad we have four games,” McCarthy said of the communication problems. “We’ll try a little bit different format next week on offense. Just talking with Mike briefly, there’s some things he’ll clean up. But it’s preseason for everybody. It was preseason game No. 1.”