GREEN BAY — Mike McCarthy meant what he said.
When the Green Bay Packers coach set seemingly unrealistic expectations for his revamped defense — saying on Jan. 4 in his end-of-season news conference that he expected that unit to be “better than the offense” this season — some wondered if McCarthy’s words had been misconstrued.
Better than the offense? The side of the ball McCarthy has coached throughout his professional life? The group led by two-time NFL MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers? Really?
Yep, McCarthy confirmed during the annual NFL scouting combine this past week. He meant it — and made that clear with another memorable line during a sit-down Q&A session at a downtown Indianapolis eatery with writers who regularly cover the team.
“To be honest, it’s got to be a mentality,” McCarthy said. “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.”
The other starting point was changing coordinators, as McCarthy fired Dom Capers following the team’s season-ending loss to Detroit and replaced him with Mike Pettine, the former Cleveland Browns head coach who directed top-10 defenses with the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills.
Unlike in 2009, when McCarthy fired Bob Sanders after three years as defensive coordinator and hired Capers, this defense change won’t be as drastic. As McCarthy pointed out, when Capers was the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive coordinator from 1992 through 1994, among his assistants was Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, who was the Baltimore Ravens’ defensive coordinator from 1996 through 2001. When Pettine got his NFL coaching break, he got it in Baltimore in 2002, after Lewis had departed but with the Ravens still running essentially the same scheme.
“We’re not scorching the earth, or throwing out the baby with the bath water with our defensive approach. There’s some history there with our past defense that Mike Pettine will be able to carry over with his scheme,” McCarthy said. “We’ll build off of that.”
He and Pettine will need some additional building blocks to achieve their lofty goal, and that’s what first-year general manager Brian Gutekunst and the personnel staff is looking to provide via free agency, which kicks off March 12, and through the NFL draft, which will begin April 26.
The Packers have two glaring needs on defense — at cornerback and at outside linebacker — and enter the draft with 12 picks, including the 14th overall pick in the first round and four compensatory picks awarded last week. Previous general manager Ted Thompson used his top pick in each of the past six drafts and had used 20 of his 29 picks (69 percent) in the first four rounds on defense.
“You have to have a dominant pass rush. You look at the teams that have been successful, that’s where it starts,” Gutekunst said. “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.”
Asked if the Packers’ defensive struggles were the result of a limited pass rush or inconsistency in coverage, Gutekunst emphasized that myriad factors were involved. The 2017 Packers defense finished 26th in scoring defense (24.0 per game), 22nd in yards allowed (348.9), 17th against the run (112.1), 23rd against the pass (236.8), 28th in third-down defense (allowing a 42.8 percent conversion rate) and 31st in red-zone defense (allowing a 65.2 percent touchdown rate).
“There’s so many pieces with that,” Gutekunst said. “If pass rushers are getting home enough, that’s pretty easy to tell from watching tape. But then when you get in the back end, it can get more complicated because there are coverages and what their requirements are back there. The NFL is hard. We need to increase all levels of our defense (where) we have to get better at. There’s no doubt about it.
“You’re looking for a well-rounded team that complements each other. You never know in a game what you’re going to need to win, whether it be offensively running the ball, passing, the defense stopping the run, the pass, special teams. I think the best teams have always been the ones that can win multiple ways.”
And that, more than anything, is what McCarthy wants.
“You’ve got to give them the opportunity to be better,” McCarthy said of the defense. “Hey, we have a great quarterback. But this is a team game. Great defenses win championships.
“I’ve always looked at defense in the game of football, they’re a thermostat. They keep the environment consistent. They give you the opportunity to (win), because there’s days that you may not catch, throw or run it as good. Defense’s 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.”