Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before: the Packers are bad at defense. For years, that was the running joke around the Green Bay Packers, as their defense routinely put the team in tough situations that Aaron Rodgers then had to heroically save them from. But that joke isn’t funny anymore, and it’s because of one Mike Pettine.
A former disciple of Rex Ryan - a now-laughable ESPN personality who used to be one of the NFL’s greatest defensive minds - Pettine ventured out from under his mentor by becoming the Bills defensive coordinator in 2013, leading the unit to immediate success. It was so much success, in fact, that the Cleveland Browns hired him as their head coach. As with any other Browns head coach this century, Pettine didn’t last long despite producing good defenses for the Dawg Pound. Fired after two years, Pettine sat out out the 2016 season and spent 2017 as a consultant with the Seattle Seahawks, learning their style of defense from Pete Carroll and then-defensive coordinator Kris Richard.
So when Pettine was hired as the Packers defensive coordinator in 2018 and tasked with rebuilding a defense that got burned far too often, he brought a new defense that combined what he had learned from Ryan and from Seattle. The result, so far, is encouraging. Last year, Green Bay finished 18th in total yards, 12th in passing yards, 22nd in rushing yards, and 22nd in scoring.
Now, in Year 2 of Pettine’s defense in Green Bay, the Packers through four games are ranking ninth in total yards, third in passing defense, 26th in run defense, and seventh in scoring defense. The Packers have turned into a viable defense, and Pettine is the hand that rocks the cradle. But this shows a trend that’s quite common for Pettine: poor run defenses. Check out this breakdown of Pettine defense DVOA ranks, courtesy of CBS Sports’ Chris Trapasso:
Currently, Green Bay has a pass defense DVOA of -24.2%, which is good for fifth in the league. Their run defense, however, ranks at 27 with a +6.1%. Overall, the defense has -9.4%, which ranks them seventh. It’s a common theme for Pettine to be great against the pass and poor against the run. Why is that?
A large part of it comes down to scheme. Pettine is one of the few coaches out there who still primarily uses a two-gap scheme along the defensive line, which asks his defensive linemen - in Green Bay, it’s Tyler Lancaster, Dean Lowry, and Kenny Clark - to stand up their blockers and read the play before reacting. That’s what Pettine asks his defensive line to do, but where many other two-gap schemers have some of their linebackers to deploy against the run, Pettine does not necessarily do that with a high frequency.
Instead, Pettine likes to send his linebackers either on blitzes or dropping back into coverage. For Pettine, it’s all about taking away opportunities in the passing game, which lines up with what the analytics say. So Pettine either wants to create pressure on the passer or add more defenders against the pass. As a result, teams can usually run with decent success on his defenses.
Last year, it didn’t go as well because Green Bay lacked a legitimate pass rush, but these things take time. Over the offseason, the Packers spent money on two edge rushers and it’s worked because money changes everything, apparently. I’m talking about the Smiths: Preston Smith, formerly of the Redskins, and Za’Darius Smith, formerly of the Ravens. Together, these two have 7.5 sacks through four games. Pettine has had fun with the ways he deploys them after the quarterback, and since both are athletic enough to be serviceable in shallow zone coverage shells, there’s a frightening amount of versatility to how he can use them.
But the Smiths aren’t the only pass rush threats on this defense. Clark is one of the best nose tackles out there, and his 1.5 sacks so far is part of the reason why. And while Lowry has yet to register a sack this year, he had three last year, a good number for what is asked of him. Then there’s hyper-athletic rookie Rashan Gary, who has seen his usage gradually increase over the course of the season. And Pettine even has a secret weapon in Kyler Fackrell, who had 10.5 sacks last year but has yet to play more than 24 snaps in a game this year. Pettine keeps him hidden, but could look to unleash Fackrell against Dallas, who will be without Tyron Smith; if so, he could be a thorn in the side of Dak Prescott for the whole game.
In the secondary, the Packers boast a shutdown cornerback in Jaire Alexander. Pettine treats Alexander like he did Darrelle Revis and Stephon Gilmore in previous stops, frequently asking the second-year corner to play press man coverage on the offense’s top receiver. Last week, Amari Cooper got shut down by Marshon Lattimore, and he’ll have to work even harder to avoid that this week. Alexander has been thrown at 27 times and only allowed 11 catches for a dismal (for quarterbacks) 40% completion rate.
Usually Alexander is across the field from Kevin King, a long and rangy corner who’s been very effective this season. However, King is doubtful for Sunday’s matchup, so Pettine could use a combination of veteran Tramon Williams and second-year corner Josh Jackson, either of which represents winnable matchups for Michael Gallup and Randall Cobb. At safety, the Packers also feature one of the more underrated free safeties in Adrian Amos, as well as the hard-hitting, ball-hawking rookie Darnell Savage Jr. Both represent threats all over the field that Dak will need to be mindful of.
This defense has plenty of playmakers that match Pettine’s scheme almost perfectly. They’ve looked good for the most part, especially against the pass, but there are areas where Dallas can exploit this unit. It’ll be up to Kellen Moore and the offensive line to find the best ways to attack this defense, especially after what happened last week for the Cowboys.