Play­ers lobby for Pet­tine’s re­turn

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - Sports - Ryan Wood

GREEN BAY – The first thing to know about the Green Bay Pack­ers de­fense is, to a man, its key play­ers don’t be­lieve they’ve ar­rived yet.

Not while al­low­ing 23.9 points per game, which ranks 17th in the NFL. Not with 351.8 yards al­lowed per game, which ranks 13th. And es­pe­cially not with only 12 take­aways (only five teams have forced fewer).

It would be too much to call the Pack­ers’ de­fense good, and it’s a far cry from great. But it hasn’t been bad.

“I feel like we just need to get some turnovers,” de­fen­sive tackle Kenny Clark said. “We need turnovers, gamechang­ing plays to take that next step. But I feel like we’ve been a pretty good de­fen­sive unit.”

By the end of Dom Capers’ term as de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor, forc­ing a punt felt like a mi­nor mir­a­cle. Two years ago in the NFC Cham­pi­onship game, the At­lanta Fal­cons scored touch­downs on six of their nine pos­ses­sions in a 44-21 rout.

Even if the Pack­ers haven’t got­ten turnovers this sea­son, they have got­ten stops.

Their av­er­age of 24 points al­lowed per game might look iden­ti­cal to 2017, but given the league-wide ex­plo­sion of of­fense, it rep­re­sents sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment. A year ago, the NFL’s top five of­fenses av­er­aged 28.24 points per game. This sea­son, the top five of­fenses are scor­ing 32.86 points per game.

The Pack­ers’ de­fense has not been good, but it also has not been the prob­lem, not com­pared to their floun­der­ing of­fense. And it ap­pears to be on a pos­i­tive tra­jec­tory.

So the se­cond thing to know about the Pack­ers’ de­fense is, to a man, its key play­ers like where they’re head­ing, and they be­lieve Mike Pet­tine is a big rea­son for their im­prove­ment.

Could the Pack­ers pair him as de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor with their new head coach?

“I think he’s a great coach,” in­side line­backer Blake Mar­tinez said. “Ob­vi­ously, I don’t have that much power in those de­ci­sions, but, yeah. He’s a great coach, and I would love to have him back.”

Pair­ing an ex­ist­ing de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor with a new head coach is work­ing in Chicago. The Bears, hop­ing to up­grade their slug­gish of­fense, hired Kansas City Chiefs of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Matt Nagy as their head coach last off­sea­son. Their de­fense, which fin­ished 10th in yards and ninth in points de­spite a 5-11 record, of­fered a foun­da­tion. So the Bears re­tained de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Vic Fan­gio.

The Bears’ of­fense has climbed into the league’s top five with 28.7 points per game, up from 29th (16.5) last sea­son. Their de­fense has also con­tin­ued its progress, rank­ing fourth in yards and points. It’s why Chicago is 8-4.

Pet­tine, whom pres­i­dent/CEO Mark Mur­phy de­clined to call a head-coach­ing can­di­date this week, didn’t say Thurs­day whether he’d be open to the idea.

“That’s dif­fi­cult. It’s just so hard,” Pet­tine said. “Of course, when some­thing like this hap­pens, you at some point be­gin to think of your own fu­ture, and it’s just been re­ally tough to do that. Just es­pe­cially with Joe (Philbin) step­ping in (as in­terim head coach), and all of our thoughts are on (pre­par­ing to play) At­lanta.

“I’m not go­ing to sit here and say, ‘Yeah. Not open to it, open to it.’ I mean, that’s a bridge that will def­i­nitely get crossed. I just don’t think now is the time to do it.”

From the day he was in­tro­duced as co­or­di­na­tor, Pet­tine pri­or­i­tized de­fend­ing the pass over stop­ping the run. The Pack­ers’ run de­fense has slipped from last sea­son, ranked 25th with 127.8 yards per game (17th and 112.1 in 2017). Yet, de­spite a se­condary de­pleted by in­juries, their pass de­fense has been much bet­ter.

The Pack­ers rank sixth with 224 pass­ing yards al­lowed per game, sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment from their 23rd rank­ing with 236.8 yards per game in 2017. More im­pres­sive, the Pack­ers’ op­po­nent passer rat­ing of 95.7 has dropped more than six points. Their 102 rat­ing ranked 31st in 2017.

The fre­quent cov­er­age break­downs of the past cou­ple years have de­creased.

“I think our big­gest stride,” Mar­tinez said, “is just our com­mu­ni­ca­tion fac­tor and our trust with one an­other, that we can get the job done and that the guy next to us is go­ing to get his job done. We’re just start­ing to play that much quicker.”

Mar­tinez said the de­fense watches film as an en­tire group this sea­son, in­stead of splin­ter­ing into in­di­vid­ual po­si­tions. If some­one makes a mis­take, ev­ery­one sees it. Pet­tine also in­tro­duced Wed­nes­day Bingo, a way to quiz play­ers over their as­sign­ments.

Get a wrong an­swer, it’s like be­ing called out in the mid­dle of your high school class.

“We pull the ball out of there,” Mar­tinez said, “and ask a given ques­tion in front of ev­ery­body, say­ing, ‘Who’s their No. 1 tar­get this week?’ Or, ‘What’s the No. 1 run?’ Just ran­dom things like that, that al­low us to see who’s pre­par­ing, who isn’t.”

Pet­tine said this sea­son has been “prob­a­bly the most fun I’ve had coach­ing in a long time.” It seems, if noth­ing else, Pet­tine has done what he could.

Clay Matthews said this sea­son has re­minded him of early in Capers’ ten­ure, when he built the Pack­ers’ de­fense into one be­fit­ting a Su­per Bowl cham­pion.

“The thing I re­ally en­joyed about Dom,” Matthews said, “… when I first came in, there was a lot more ac­count­abil­ity put on the play­ers to get their job done. I think a lit­tle bit more pres­sure needs to be put on the young guys when they come in here, and he’s (Pet­tine) done ex­actly that.

“I think he’s done a great job of putting us in the right di­rec­tion.”

JIM MATTHEWS / USA TO­DAY NET­WORK-WIS­CON­SIN

Green Bay’s de­fen­sive play­ers be­lieve the group is on the rise and they want co­or­di­na­tor Mike Pet­tine to re­turn.

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