Packers defense looks to build on one-year head start as OTAs kick off

May 16, 2019

GREEN BAY — Aaron Rodgers may be as competitive as ever, but he’s also a realist.

The Green Bay Packers quarterback knows that he and his fellow offensive guys will be at a disadvantage when organized team activity practices kick off next week and the Packers are able to play some actual, 11-on-11 football — or as close a facsimile as possible in helmets and shorts in springtime.

For while new head coach Matt LaFleur and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett will be heading up the full, on-field installation of the team’s new playbook on that side of the ball, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and his crew will be ahead of the curve in Year 2 of their system.

“The defense is in their second year, so obviously they don’t have maybe the same type of grace period that the offense does maybe on a Day 1 or 2. But every time we take the field, somebody is getting an impression of what we’re doing — and we want to make sure it’s the right one,” Rodgers explained. “Offensively, it’s just a little tougher for us I think because it’s all so new.

“This is definitely the most I’ve actually had to study in the offseason out of all the years because it’s a brand-new system. It’s like learning a new language. A lot of words that mean something in the last offense have different meanings now in this one. So it’s definitely been a bit of a learning curve for me.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean the defense is in plug-and-play mode already. Pettine will be integrating five high-profile additions to his group: Veteran free-agent outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith; veteran free-agent safety Adrian Amos; and the team’s two first-round picks, versatile outside linebacker/defensive lineman Rashan Gary and safety Darnell Savage.

The three veteran pick-ups got their first taste of the defense during the extra minicamp the Packers were allowed to have last month because they have a new head coach; the rookies got a very small glimpse of the playbook during the post-draft rookie camp.

“We did a lot of really good things last year, especially with all the injuries we had,” veteran defensive lineman Mike Daniels said. “We saw a lot of great things and there’s a lot of carryover.

“I’m really excited. We had a coach with a new scheme last year. There were a lot of speed bumps, learning curves — whatever you want to call them — and now you see everybody is a lot more comfortable with the scheme. And it’s showing.”

Each team is allotted 10 OTA practices during Phase III of the offseason program over the course of the next three weeks. The Packers have three that are scheduled to be open to the public, weather permitting: Tuesday; Wednesday, May 29; and Tuesday, June 4.

LaFleur’s hope is that the offensive players will gradually grasp the new concepts with more on-field work and the defense-is-ahead-of-the-offense gap that he saw during the minicamp will shrink. He said the difference was especially noticeable during the second day of the minicamp, when the offensive coaches put in more of the new playbook before practice and the players on that side of the ball struggled at times.

“I think there was a little bit more thinking (for those guys). We implemented probably 20 more pass concepts, and it definitely slowed them down a little bit,” LaFleur explained. “That’s to be expected. Just when you watch us, the defense is really in Year 2 of a system going against an offense that’s in Year 1, so some of that stuff occurs.”

That could also happen once the season kicks off on Sept. 5, when the Packers will face their longtime rivals, the Chicago Bears, in the NFL’s 100th year kickoff game at Soldier Field. While LaFleur surely would like his offense to be clicking by the end of training camp, that might not happen.

As a result, the Packers may need the defense to carry the day early on. Last year, Pettine’s banged-up unit finished 18th in total defense (354.4 yards per game), 22nd in scoring defense (25.0 points per game) — in his previous seasons as the defensive coordinator for the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills, Pettine had never had a unit finish outside the top 10 in total defense — but must get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks and force more turnovers.

Interestingly, despite their problematic pass rush, the Packers did manage 44 sacks, tied for eighth in the NFL. But with a paltry seven interceptions last year, only one team — the San Francisco 49ers, with two — had fewer INTs.

The belief among the defensive players is that more familiarity will result in more clearly defined roles on that side of the ball — meaning less experimentation with lineups — and more certainty with assignments.

That, in turn, should lead to better production and more consistency.

“For us, this year, we (should) have more solidified roles, not many guys rotating in. We have a lot of new guys coming in (but) it’s just been awesome to know that I’m going to be out there and it’s not going to be a new guy every other play,” inside linebacker Blake Martinez said.

“(We’re) way, way better off. Just going through the installs (early on), it’s just so much clearer for me, personally, being able to calls plays that I know — certain formations, certain things that Pettine’s looking for that I wouldn’t have seen last September.”