Packers eager to debut new defense vs. Bears
GREEN BAY, Wis. — The Green Bay Packers are debuting their own defensive changes this weekend against the Bears , even if they may not initially make as much of a splash as Chicago’s acquisition of star linebacker Khalil Mack.
But the effectiveness of those new wrinkles could be just as important to the fortunes of a team looking to return to the playoffs.
After playing it safe in the preseason, new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine can finally take the wraps off the Packers’ revamped scheme when the Bears visit Lambeau Field on Sunday night.
“It just opens up everything,” linebacker Nick Perry said Thursday about the new defense. “I think from attacking it off the edge, attacking it inside, you have more options to attack.”
The Packers ranked 22nd in defense last year. It was especially a problem given that quarterback Aaron Rodgers was limited to seven games because of a collarbone injury.
Rodgers has the talent to be able cover up deficiencies in other areas of the team. With Rodgers out, everyone else had to step up. Instead, the Packers finished 7-9 and had its streak of eight straight postseason appearances snapped.
Changes in the organization included the firing of longtime defensive coordinator Dom Capers. He was replaced by Pettine, the former head coach of the Cleveland Browns, who stuck with the 3-4 defense as the base scheme.
So far, so good for the transition.
“I know in preseason, we’re keeping it basic,” inside linebacker Blake Martinez said. “So it’ll be cool to kind of dive into the playbook on Sunday and see how we kind of compete and get the job done.”
They will be expected to get pressure with just four outside linebackers on the roster. Perry and fellow veteran Clay Matthews will be backed up by Reggie Gilbert, who emerged in the preseason to become the top reserve; and Kyler Fackrell, a third-round draft pick in 2016.
“It’s a demand,” Perry said. “But at the end of the day, the big guys have got to kind of take the big load. That’s what they pay us for.”
More pressure might come from up front. Green Bay added Muhammad Wilkerson as a free agent in the offseason, making the line perhaps the strongest position group on the team. Stalwarts Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark lead the front, along with emerging third-year player Dean Lowry and promising second-year pro Montravius Adams.
More inside pressure might lead to more 1-on-1 opportunities on the outside. And that’s assuming that Pettine isn’t disguising from where the pressure might come on a particular play. Even Rodgers has been impressed this preseason by some different looks on defense.
“We can line up in different spots and attack you. I don’t think we’re just going to sit there in spots and let people try to pick us apart,” Clark said. “I feel like if Aaron is saying it, you can only imagine how other quarterbacks can struggle with it.”
A more effective pass rush can also have the effect of forcing quarterbacks into making bad throws, which in turn could lead to better pass coverage, which was another problem area in 2017.
A cornerback group prone to injury the last two seasons has also been revamped, with veteran Tramon Williams returning to provide leadership. The Packers also took promising rookies Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson with their first two picks in the draft.
Matthews estimated that the Packers showed just 5 percent of the defensive playbook during preseason games.
“We definitely have a number of pressures, base defenses, little wrinkles that we like to think will play in our favor,” Matthews said. “At the end of the day, we’re going out there and playing defense, and the name of the game is tackling the ball. That doesn’t change.”