Packers: Defense must set the tone in 2019
By Jesse Fry
This offseason has seen a massive amount of change. Gone is Mike McCarthy, gone are long-time players Randall Cobb and Clay Matthews. It will be up to one holdover to affect the most change. Coach Mike Pettine and his defense must set the tone for the 2019 Green Bay Packers.
Mike Pettine was hired last year by former coach Mike McCarthy to rebuild the Packers defense to one that can match his usually prolific offense. At the very least, the Packers hoped a new coordinator would rid the defense of stale play-calling and a failure to adapt to new schemes.
In his first year, Coach Pettine had a mixed bag. Injuries and untimely penalties seemed to slow the defense down any time they seemed to be gaining steam. By seasons end, all three of the preferred starters on the defensive line were on injured reserve. The safety spot never got settled and the perceived top edge rushers, Nick Perry and Clay Matthews, lacked the production expected of the two defenders carrying the largest cap hits.
Despite these issues, the defense showed enough promise to convince new coach Matt LaFleur to keep Pettine around.
The expectations for the offense will be high. Coach LaFleur was hired due to his offensive acumen and work with quarterbacks. But it is a completely new system and there is no telling how fast the players will be able to learn the concepts. Struggles, especially early, should be expected.
The defense cannot be like defenses of seasons past and crumble when the offense isn’t putting up points.
There are many reasons to believe this team and this defense shouldn’t be looked at like previous editions. First, unlike the offense, the defense is going into its second season with this system. The players aren’t having to learn a new playbook and can start to play faster.
Second, there are enough bright spots from last season to lean on.
Kenny Clark is on the verge of becoming an All-Pro player. Clark can hold the point as a true nose while also giving the Packers a strong pass rush from inside. Jaire Alexander also looks like a player headed for superstardom. Alexander had a great rookie year, holding his ground against some of the best receivers the NFC has to offer.
Mike Daniels is in a contract year and looking to rebound from an injury-filled down year. Tramon Williams may have lost a step, but his veteran savvy and sound technique keep him in position to make plays in coverage.
If Kevin King can stay healthy, the Packers cornerbacks should be able to keep receivers at bay and allow Coach Pettine to dial up exotic pressures. If nothing else, Blake Martinez is as solid as they come as a run defender and tackler. He has work to do in pass coverage, but if Oren Burks can take the same type of second-year leap Martinez did in his sophomore season, there’s no reason to think the problems in the middle can’t be resolved.
Also coming back is last season’s sack leader Kyler Fackrell. Fackrell was a pleasant surprise last season after doing next to nothing his first two years. What can make him just as effective in 2019 is he won’t have to be the main man.
Which brings me to my next point.
General manager Brian Gutekunst did his part, supplying Pettine with a few high-priced free agents and athletically gifted draft picks. Gutekunst may have also done the team a favor letting Clay Matthews walk and cutting the often injured Nick Perry.
Each one of the new players brings something different to the team. Za’Darius and Preston Smith are two different types of rushers but both are effective at what they do. Za’Darius can bring the pressure from inside and hold a strong edge against the run. Preston will bring it off the edge while also being adept at dropping into coverage.
Adrian Amos is a heady safety who can stabilize the back end. His best spot may be playing closer to the line of scrimmage, but his high football IQ will allow him to play all over the field while being the communicator on the back end the team was lacking last year.
The Packers shocked many when they drafted Rashan Gary. Gary brings athleticism not normally seen by a guy his size. Gary was used to doing the dirty work on the Michigan defense allowing those around him to make the plays, but in the Packers system, he will get his chance to show what he has and get after the quarterback.
The Packers’ other first-round pick Darnell Savage could be the missing piece in the defense. Savage has the speed to be a difference maker playing centerfield. The Packers have not had the type of player Savage is since the early retirement of Nick Collins. In addition to being a plus athlete, Savage is impressing his teammates with his study of the playbook and football IQ.
Lastly, the mix of veteran and youthful talent is the best it’s been in some time. Former GM Ted Thompson‘s aversion to free agency has been well documented. And his last few drafts have been busts.
That’s ok if you’re supplementing the team with free agents. Only it seemed the only free agent Ted liked to sign were of the undrafted rookie variety. This had players who were better suited waiting a few years before getting serious playing time, thrust into key roles before they were ready.
As of right now, the only rookie expected to start is Darnell Savage. In fact, the only real question mark heading into the season is who starts alongside Martinez. But as I said earlier, Burks (a third-round draft pick last year) could be the player to fill that void.
Health will be the biggest factor for this defense to play to its potential. Injuries are a part of the inevitable. At least this year, the Packers seem better suited to withstand the loss of a few players.
I’ll say it again, the offense will struggle, especially early. But I firmly believe this year’s defense will be ready to be the tone-setters and help the Packers get back to the playoffs in 2019.