GREEN BAY — Defensive tackle Kenny Clark and linebacker Blake Martinez have only met and talked with their new boss. They haven’t played a single down for him, haven’t gone through a single practice with him, haven’t even watched film or read a single page of the playbook with him yet.
But to say that the two Green Bay Packers defenders are excited about playing for new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine — and encouraged by a new approach that sounds like it’ll be more demanding than things had been under previous coordinator Dom Capers — would be an understatement.
“(Pettine) reached out to me early in the offseason and kind of just let me know the style of play that we’re going to have,” Martinez said as he, Clark and running back Ty Montgomery boarded a bus for the team’s annual “Tailgate Tour,” which left Lambeau Field Tuesday morning. “(He explained) just his need and want of having organization throughout every single part, making sure there’s no mental errors, no missed assignments, any of that.
“He (said he) was going to be strict on it. He wasn’t going to let anything fly — if you’re a Pro Bowler or a rookie coming in. I think that was kind of the cool stance, hearing from him and talking to him about that because that was one of my things that I wanted to voice my opinion on: Just making sure everyone is on the right page at the right time and nothing is confused going into Sunday.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how we implement that kind of going into this.”
The Packers kick off their official offseason program next Monday, although the first session is devoted to strength and conditioning work. Players won’t get into the nitty-gritty football work until organized team activity practices begin in May.
But it’s become increasingly clear that they needed to hit the reset button on defense after nine years under Capers. Miscommunications and botched assignments were too frequent last season, and some players felt there was insufficient accountability for players who made repeated errors.
As a result, 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 also weren’t enough big plays. The Packers finished tied for 17th in sacks with 37 and tied for 20th in interceptions with 11.
Pettine was the New York Jets defensive coordinator from 2009 through 2012, during which the Jets never finished outside the top 10 in total defense. New York was No. 1 in the NFL in scoring defense (14.8 points per game) and total defense (252.3 yards per game) in 2009; sixth (19.0) and third (291.5) in 2010; 20th (22.7) and fifth (312.1) in 2011; and 20th (23.4) and eighth (323.4) in 2012.
Pettine then coordinated the Buffalo Bills’ defense in 2013, and the unit ranked 20th in scoring defense (24.3) and 10th in total defense (333.4) before Pettine was hired as the Cleveland Browns’ head coach in 2014 and went 10-22 in two seasons.
“We haven’t spoken in specifics yet,” Clark said when asked for his initial impressions of Pettine’s defense. “We’re going to play hard. We’re going to do our job. We’re going to try to be great.
“You just take it all in, go out there and get in the playbook. Just start from Square One, go out there and work. That’s what I’ve been doing and am excited about the opportunity.”
Martinez, who shared the responsibility of wearing the communication helmet with now-departed safety Morgan Burnett during his first two seasons, will likely be the primary communicator this season on defense. He said in conversations with other coaches about Pettine’s approach, he’s learned that the linebackers bear more responsibility but also have more freedom.
“There’s more freedom in the linebacker group, more communication on my part to make sure I get the calls to everybody. And there’s going to be more calls for me to make and more freedom for me to make calls out there as the play is going or pre-snap calls,” Martinez said. “It will be cool to see how much I get to dive into that and how much I can kind of grasp all that and just have fun with it.
“When (Pettine) was on the great defenses, everybody was watching. I was one of those guys watching that. It’s exciting to see and exciting to get to learn.”