GREEN BAY — Mike McCarthy has set the bar almost astonishingly high. Now it’s up to him, new general manager Brian Gutekunst and new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to get the Green Bay Packers defense to those demanding heights.
“The defense needs to be better than the offense. I mean, that has to happen,” the Packers coach said during his annual after-the-season news conference on Jan. 4 — before Gutekunst was hired as GM and before McCarthy tabbed Pettine, the ex-Cleveland Browns head coach, to replace Dom Capers.
“So you’ve got four ways to do it. You get player acquisition, player instruction, obviously player finance — who you pay to build your roster — and you get player performance. … We can always get better, and that’s really where I’m at with it. So the defense, we need to be better.”
McCarthy, set to embark on his 13th season as the Packers coach, knows full well that his offense has been the engine that has driven his teams to nine playoff berths in 12 years, four NFC Championship Game berths, a run of eight straight postseason appearances and the Super Bowl XLV title following the 2010 season.
Had two-time NFL MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers not broken his right collarbone in an Oct. 15 game at Minnesota, the Packers almost certainly would have made the playoffs again — and perhaps some of the major changes at 1265 Lombardi Avenue would not have occurred.
But the Packers did indeed finish 7-9 in 2017, and with backup quarterback Brett Hundley’s inconsistent play, this was the year in which the Packers needed their defense to save them.
But it didn’t — finishing the season 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).
That was enough to convince McCarthy it was time for a change. After nine seasons, Capers was dismissed following the Packers’ season-ending loss on Dec. 31 at Detroit.
Now, he turns to Pettine, who was a defensive coordinator with the New York Jets (2009-2012) and Buffalo Bills (2013) before going 10-22 in two seasons as Browns head coach.
Pettine’s unit in New York in 2009 finished No. 1 in scoring defense and total defense, and none of his five defenses finished outside the top 10 in yards allowed.
Using McCarthy’s better-than-the-offense metric, the Packers defense hasn’t been in the same conversation as the team’s high-powered offense since Capers’ first two seasons in 2009 and 2010.
In 2009, the defense finished second in yards allowed (284.4 per game) and seventh in points allowed (18.6).
The offense finished sixth in total yards (379.1) and third in scoring (28.8).
In 2010, the defense was fifth in yards allowed (309.1) and second in points allowed (15.0), while the offense was ninth in yards (358.1) and 10th in points (24.3).
So how do the Packers get their defense back to that level?
Using McCarthy’s own four avenues for improvement, there are some obvious ways to do it.
The Packers are set to pick 14th — their highest position in the NFL’s draft since GM Ted Thompson took defensive tackle B.J. Raji with the ninth overall pick in 2009 — and should have 11 or 12 overall picks once compensatory picks are factored in. And they’ll need Gutekunst to have a better batting average on defensive picks than Thompson had of late.
In his last six drafts, starting with 2012, Thompson devoted 20 of his 29 picks in the first four rounds to defense (69 percent).
The only outlier of those drafts was 2013, when he took UCLA defensive end Datone Jones with his first-round pick but followed him with four straight offensive players. (Thompson then took defensive players with his next three picks, including now-Buffalo Bills Pro Bowl safety Micah Hyde in the fifth round.) The Packers haven’t used their top pick on an offensive player since 2011, when they took Mississippi State offensive tackle Derek Sherrod.
“This is a huge time to re-energize our roster, build the competition throughout,” Gutekunst said. “We’ve got to be on our game, and everybody in this organization understands that. What happened this year can’t happen again. This is not what we’re about here.”
Gutekunst also made it clear he intends to utilize free agency, something Thompson was very selective in doing. It’s worth noting that while Thompson largely eschewed big-money spending, he did sign two likely Pro Football Hall of Famers — cornerback Charles Woodson in 2006 and pass rusher Julius Peppers in 2014 — who were significant contributors on teams that reached multiple conference title games.
The defensive staff will look significantly different — and not just with Pettine replacing Capers.
McCarthy also dismissed defensive line coach Mike Trgovac and inside linebackers coach Scott McCurley, and longtime linebackers coach/assistant head coach Winston Moss is not expected to return, according to two league sources.
Assistant defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery (Texas A&M) and quality control coach Tim McGarigle (Northwestern) also left for college jobs.
The only holdovers expected to be back are safeties coach Darren Perry and cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt, each of whom interviewed for the coordinator job. Whitt returns with a yet-to-be-announced promotion and new title, something akin to David Raih’s “offensive perimeter coach” position on the other side of the ball.
One NFL source said McCarthy was extremely impressed with Whitt’s interview but that he wanted someone with experience as a coordinator. Now, he’s charging Whitt with helping improve the NFL’s 23rd-ranked pass defense and increase the interception numbers from a paltry 11 in 2017, tied for 20th in the league.
The rest of the staff should be finalized and announced this week.
Clay Matthews is entering the final year of a five-year, $66 million extension he signed in April 2013, and Nick Perry is going into the second year of a five-year, $59 million deal he received last March. The two outside linebackers will carry a combined salary-cap charge of $21.12 million in 2018, after combining for 14.5 sacks — the same number that NFL sack leader Calais Campbell had by himself for Jacksonville.
Gutekunst could ask Matthews to take a pay cut for next season, but he’s coming off a solid year and the last thing the Packers can afford is to give up on a pass rusher the way they let Peppers walk last spring without even an offer. Multiple league sources said Peppers, who had 29.5 sacks in his three seasons in Green Bay (including playoffs), wanted to return but never got an offer from the Packers.
He wound up taking a one-year deal from his original NFL team, the Carolina Panthers, that paid him a $1.65 million signing bonus and $1 million base salary. Set to turn 38 this week, Peppers had 11 sacks for the Panthers this season.
The Packers also let Hyde walk, then watched him earn Pro Bowl and All-Pro recognition in Buffalo. Meanwhile, their own free-agent signees on defense were largely non-factors.
Outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks, who got a $1.75 million signing bonus and $1 million base salary, had 1.5 sacks and made more money than Peppers. Defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois was cut twice. Defensive tackle Quinton Dial battled injuries and was a non-factor.
Cornerback Davon House, a 2011 fourth-round pick who returned after two years in Jacksonville, was the best of the bunch but was hampered by myriad injuries.
Whether the Packers make a free-agent splash — a pass rusher or top-flight cover corner would top the list — remains to be seen, but Gutekunst said he will utilize free agency more than the team has recently.
“We’re not going to leave any stone unturned as far as every avenue of player acquisition,” Gutekunst said. “(That) doesn’t mean we’re always going to get to the finish and actually sign the guy, but we’re going to go throughout the entire process and be in on every possible acquisition.
“… We’re really excited to maybe delve into some things that we haven’t done in awhile.”
Gutekunst took exception to one reporter who said the Packers’ cupboard was “bare” on defense.
Up front, defensive tackle Mike Daniels is headed to his first Pro Bowl as an injury replacement, 2016 first-round pick Kenny Clark had a breakout second season and Matthews and Perry likely would have been more productive had they stayed healthy.
Meanwhile, inside linebacker Blake Martinez tied for the NFL lead in tackles; cornerback Damarious Randall, the team’s 2015 first-round pick, played some of his best football late in the year; and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was a Pro Bowl selection last year before inexplicably backsliding in 2017.
The team got very little out of their rookies on defense, as second-round picks Kevin King (he battled a significant shoulder injury at cornerback and eventually landed on injured reserve) and safety Josh Jones (he seemed burdened by trying to play multiple positions) had limited impact. Third-round pick Montravius Adams broke his foot the first day of training camp and was never a real contributor to the defensive line rotation, and fourth-round pick Vince Biegel — a former University of Wisconsin athlete — missed all of the offseason and the first six regular-season games with a broken foot, leaving the Packers thin on pass rushers.
If those players can contribute in their second seasons, and the Packers can infuse the defense with more talent via the draft and free agency, a turnaround isn’t out of the question.
The year before Capers arrived, Green Bay’s defense finished 20th in yards allowed (334.3) and 22nd in points allowed (23.8) — then finished in the top 10 in both categories in Capers’ first season.
“It’s going to be on us to create the competition on that defense to let the cream rise to the crop,” Gutekunst said. “We’ve got some good players on defense.
“We didn’t play well as a team. I think that kind of needs to be the mindset around here, the team has to be greater than the sum of the parts. I think that’s what we’re looking forward to, and I’m confident Mike’s going to get his staff and going to accomplish that.”