INDIANAPOLIS – Days after making the most significant change to his coaching staff in nine years, Mike McCarthy stepped to the Lambeau Field podium on Jan. 4 and offered a challenge to the Packers’ defense during his season-ending news conference.
“I’m trying to stay away from generalities, but if I wanted to give a philosophical answer, the defense needs to be better than the offense,” McCarthy said. “I mean, that has to happen.”
The statement came in the aftermath of a 7-9 season in which Green Bay’s defense finished 22nd in total yards and 31st in red-zone scoring. It was a disappointing outcome for a unit that appeared in line for a turnaround after a strong start to the season.
McCarthy, acknowledging the need to utilize external resources to renovate the defense, hired Mike Pettine to replace longtime coordinator Dom Capers.
Pettine’s task is to return Green Bay back to the top of the league like it was during Capers’ first two years in Green Bay. Since then, however, the defense often has taken a backseat to the offense, a perception McCarthy wants to change in 2018.
“It’s got to be a mentality,” McCarthy on Wednesday from the NFL Scouting Combine. “I’m sick and tired of our defense feeling like the stepchild. I mean, how many times do you have to tell them, ‘You’re not the stepchild’?
“That’s a blatant statement, and it’s not a cure-all. But it’s definitely a starting point. So, now, with that, you’ve got to give them the opportunity to be better.”
McCarthy believes there are four aspects to improving a defense: player acquisition, instruction, finance and performance. After McCarthy made wholesale changes to his staff, new General Manager Brian Gutekunst and his scouts are doing their part this week in Indianapolis, sifting through more than 300 draft hopefuls at the annual combine.
A member of the Packers’ scouting department for more than 20 years, Gutekunst vividly remembers impact defenders on the franchise’s Super Bowl XXXI and XLV teams, and the characteristics that made those teams champions.
Gutekunst, possessor of 12 picks in this year’s draft, believes the Packers have a nucleus to contend, but understands his role in finding players to complement the likes of Clay Matthews, Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
“You have to have a dominant pass rush,” Gutekunst said. “You look at the teams that have been successful, that’s where it starts. The game is getting more and more speed-oriented on the back end. That’s important.
“With the new coaching staff, the communication part is going to have to pick up quickly, because everything’s new. That’s what I have my eyes on right now.”
Multiplicity is a cornerstone of Pettine’s scheme, which has ties to the system Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis ran in Baltimore from 1996-2001. Coincidentally, Lewis’ scheme has roots in Pittsburgh after serving as the Steelers’ linebackers coach under Capers and Dick LeBeau in the mid-1990s.
That’s not to say Pettine’s system will be a carbon copy of Capers’. Pettine has proven to be his own man, coordinating four consecutive top-10 defenses for Rex Ryan’s New York Jets from 2009-12 and then another in Buffalo in 2013.
As Pettine said in his introductory news conference, the age-old debate over 3-4 versus 4-3 base defense has proven obsolete as nickel and dime sub-packages become the norm, a trend that’s directly increased the need for more hybrid players.
The Packers’ most notable defender, six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Matthews, has been the posterchild for that brand of versatility since he was drafted in the first round in 2009.
Elsewhere, Green Bay does have a tough call to make on pending free-agent safety Morgan Burnett, who played every spot in the secondary last season in addition to occasionally serving as a linebacker. Independent of Burnett’s contract situation, both McCarthy and Gutekunst agree elephant rushers and versatile safeties will continue to have a future in Green Bay’s defense.
“You can’t have enough multi-positional players,” McCarthy said. “Morgan definitely is one of our best at that, so to be able to play multiple positions over the course of a year, his communication. You could see the level of efficiency when he’s in there as opposed to when he wasn’t in there.
“You always have schematic challenges from bad matchups. When you have multi-positional players, it obviously eliminates the opportunity to potentially be in a bad matchup.”
McCarthy wants to see immediate improvement in how the defense performs against the league’s top quarterbacks after coming up short against Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan in 2017.
While a more consistent pass rush is the most direct route to making that happen, McCarthy believes the changes made to the coaching structure will help alleviate some of the coverage issues Green Bay experienced this past season.
Change isn’t easy and any structural decision McCarthy makes is a responsibility he doesn’t take lightly. At the same time, he likes what he’s seen in the first two months of the Pettine Era.
“I’ve always looked at defense in the game of football, they’re a thermostat,” McCarthy said. “They keep the environment consistent. They give you the opportunity to – because there’s days that you may not catch, throw or run it as good – (have) room for error.
“It’s in a better spot to have consistency. And obviously players, scheme, all that factors in too. We need to be more consistent on defense.”