Throughout most of the 2017 season (and in prior seasons) Packers nation was calling for the firing of Dom Capers, the man who served as defensive coordinator since the 2009 season. Finally, on January 1st, the day after a season finale 35-11 whooping by the Detroit freaking Lions, the Packers’ brass release Dom Capers of his duties and sought to revamp to a group which hasn’t finished in the top 10 in NFL defense since the 2010 season.
Enter Michael Mark Pettine Jr. The man chosen by head coach Mike McCarthy to turn around the defense and pick up the major slack which Aaron Rodgers has helped cover up. While it may not be the flashiest defensive coordinator hiring, it may just be the perfect hiring to vault the Packers’ back into Super Bowl consideration. Pettine’s first experience at Lambeau Field ironically was during his interview, as he has coached in the AFC his whole NFL career, and each stop along the way didn’t include a date in Green Bay.
Pettine, a former free safety at the University of Virginia (graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics), grinded his way up the coaching ranks. After coaching four seasons as an assistant coach at his alma matter, Central Bucks West High School in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, Pettine accepted a role as a Graduate assistant at the University of Pittsburgh from 1993-1994 before going on to become a high school head coach for six years in Pennsylvania (William Tennent HS in Warminster and North Penn HS in Lansdale). In fact, the ESPN documentary The Season, which was filmed in 1999, featured Pettine Jr.’s North Penn squad against their archrival Central Bucks West, coached by his father, Mike Pettine Sr. In 2001 Pettine caught his first big break and joined the Baltimore Ravens’ defensive staff lead by defensive coordinator, Rex Ryan. For three seasons Pettine would serve Ryan in lower level assistant roles before being promoted to outside linebacker’s coach in 2005, a position he held until 2008. Under his watch, OLB’s Terrell Suggs and Adalius Thomas were molded into perennial Pro Bowl players.
In 2009, Rex Ryan became the head coach of the New York Jets and brought Pettine with him to become his defensive coordinator. The Jets defensive finished 2009 ranked as the number one in total defensive in the NFL. As a unit they would finish the next three seasons ranked third, fifth and eighth respectively. When Pettine’s contact expired following the 2012 season, he made the move to Buffalo to lead the Bills defensive unit. The Bills, a team on the rebuild at the time, finished ranked 10th in total defense, and Pettine was well regarded enough the following offseason to be named the 15th full-time head coach in the history of the Cleveland Browns, known as the biggest project in the NFL.
In Pettine’s first year as head coach of the Browns, the team started off the season with a 7-4 record which included a rare win over the hated Pittsburgh Steelers. Injuries caused the wheels fell off and the team lost its last five games to finish 7-9, which was still their best record since 2007.
The 2015 campaign turned out to be a disaster. 2014 first round draft picks QB Johnny Manziel and CB Justin Gilbert, both were looked upon to be franchise cornerstones, but instead were immediate busts. By the first week of February, the Browns’ offense was already in complete shambles. First, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan resigned to join the Atlanta Falcons after he disagreed with management over Manziel’s readiness to lead the team. Then star wide receiver Josh Gordon was suspended for the season for his fifth failed drug test, and to top it all off Manziel voluntarily entered alcohol rehab. Aside from a new uniform set, the Browns went back to their old ways and finished 3-13. Following a 28-12 loss to the Steelers on the last day of the regular season, Pettine was dismissed as head coach. Since that day, his predecessor, Hue Jackson, has gone 1-31 over the past two seasons in Cleveland.
After spending 2016 out of football and 2017 as a consultant for the Seattle Seahawks, Pettine comes to Green Bay looking to re-prove his marque coaching skills without having the pressures of being a head coach and dealing with the additional riff raff that comes along with being a head coach. To say he has some work do to, is an understatement. If you watched the Wisconsin Badgers defensive dominate the NCAA field under Jim Leonhard, you can look right to Pettine as to where Leonhard developed his schemes and approach. Leonhard spent six of his ten seasons in the NFL as a player under Pettine and touts “flexibility” and “creativity” as two of Pettine’s best coaching traits.
The ability to put guys in positions to make plays on a consistent basis is something the Packers defensive desperately needs after finishing last in the league across the board on a wide variety of statistics, notably ranking 28th on third down. As a unit the Packers’ ability to defend the screen pass was putrid, from week six (when Rodgers was injured) through week 15 (when Rodgers returned) the Packers gave up 21 screen passes that resulted in gains of 10 or more yards. Their tackling was at times dreadful. Haha Clinton-Dix for example (a Pro Bowl player in 2016 none the less) had an 11.2% missed tackle percentage and his backup Kentrell Brice was even worse at 17.9%.
The draft and off-season acquisitions will be key component in helping to re-structure the Packers defense, but there are some very talented pieces in place that must pick up their play in 2018. Pettine is known as a guy who wants to have fun and let his players be themselves and show their character, but to do so, the team will have to go work and do their jobs throughout the week, so that Sunday can be a time to display his trademark defensive which consists of relentless effort, an aggressive 3-4 scheme built around blitzing and press-man coverage. One thing is known, Mike Daniels, the Packers defensive stalwart, is excited to finally have a guy with his type of fire and fury leading the defense. Dom Capers had his moments and was a key part of the Super Bowl 45 win, but times change, and change was well overdue in Green Bay.
Welcome to Packers nation coach Pettine, it’s time to go to work.