After years of disappointment, Packers knew defensive changes had to go deeper than just coordinator
ORLANDO, Fla. — If you don’t think your defense is good enough to win a Super Bowl — and the Green Bay Packers obviously knew that theirs hasn’t been over the past few years — then you have to make changes. And those changes have to go deeper than simply replacing the defensive coordinator.
Simple, right? And yet, if there were those who thought merely firing defensive coordinator Dom Capers after nine seasons and replacing him with ex-Cleveland Browns head coach Mike Pettine would be sufficient, new general manager Brian Gutekunst wasn’t part of that crowd.
That’s why the Packers traded 2015 first-round pick Damarious Randall to the Browns earlier this month even though their depth chart at cornerback was already quite thin.
That’s why they made little effort to re-sign veteran safety Morgan Burnett even though he’s taking 102 games of experience with him to Pittsburgh, where he figures to be a lead-by-example locker-room glue guy, just as he was in Green Bay.
That’s why they didn’t make a qualifying offer to inside linebacker Joe Thomas even though he played 924 defensive snaps over the past two seasons and had been their primary dime linebacker in 2016 before signing with the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday.
That’s why Gutekunst has added a pair of veteran players — ex-New York Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson and once-and-again Packers cornerback Tramon Williams — to the defensive mix, with the added bonus that both players spent time in Pettine’s system and can assist with the transition.
And that’s why more personnel changes are in the offing, including presumably more veteran pick-ups in advance of next month’s NFL draft.
“You try to stay as disciplined as you can, looking for the opportunity to improve your football team and being prepared to act if those opportunities present themselves,” Gutekunst said earlier this month when asked about his free agent approach.
While Gutekunst’s decision to part ways with popular veteran wide receiver Jordy Nelson drew far more attention — and for some fans, angst — none of the villagers have been at the Lambeau Field gates with pitchforks over the departures of Burnett, Randall and Thomas. With coach Mike McCarthy already having set the lofty goal of his defense being better than the Aaron Rodgers-led offense, the need for change was obvious.
The Packers finished last 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).
“We need to increase all levels of our defense. We have to get better,” Gutekunst said at the NFL scouting combine last month in Indianapolis. “There’s no doubt about it.”
To that end, Gutekunst traveled to pro days at Florida State, Georgia and Ohio State as he mulls what to do with the No. 14 overall pick and the Packers’ 11 other selections in the April 26-28 draft. He’ll take a break from his scouting odyssey to attend the annual NFL Meetings at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes along with McCarthy and team president/CEO Mark Murphy before returning to draft preparations.
The last time the Packers changed coordinators on defense, firing Bob Sanders and hiring Capers following the 2008 season, then-general manager Ted Thompson added two crucial components for Capers’ scheme with a pair of first-round picks: Nose tackle B.J. Raji (No. 9 overall) and pass-rushing outside linebacker Clay Matthews (No. 26).
While Gutekunst will likely build upon Thompson’s defensive draft emphasis — Thompson’s last six top draft picks, including cornerback Kevin King at the top of the second round last year, were dedicated to defensive players — he said he won’t have to be as specific in his search as Thompson was in the 2009 draft. While there are clear needs at outside linebacker and cornerback, he doesn’t have to commit to a certain type of player because of a scheme change.
“Back then, we were going from a 4-3 to a 3-4, and quite frankly, at that time, there wasn’t as much sub-packaging back then (as there is now),” said Gutekunst, referring to how the Packers spend roughly 80 percent of their defensive snaps in a nickel or dime alignment with extra defensive backs. “Our big thing was, we needed a nose. That was a big thing, because that base defense stayed on the field so much back then. We felt we needed a dominant nose tackle. And then obviously the outside ’backers are where all your pass rush is going to come from.
“I do remember thinking there was much more of a focus on the scheme part of it, for us, getting some guys that can fit that scheme. Obviously our scheme really isn’t going to change quite a bit (this time). Now, the way (Pettine) may use percentages and different packages on the field, (that) may change a little bit. But the pieces, I don’t know if they’re changing as significantly as they did back in 2009.”
Just as long as those pieces are better than some of the pieces the team has used of late.
“We don’t look at the scheme and say, ‘I’ve got to go get that guy.’ There’s not enough of those guys just to play one scheme,” McCarthy said. “That’s the importance of establishing a system of offense or defense or special teams. If Brian and his guys feel strong about this guy, then I want that guy.”