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Mike Pettine’s track record against top QBs offers welcome change for Packers defense

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After notorious struggles from Dom Capers’ defenses against the best in the game, Green Bay gets a change.

New York Jets Vs. New England Patriots At Gillette Stadium
Mike Pettine’s defenses didn’t just beat up the scrub offenses; they handled the best in the game.
Photo by Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Before the games were even played, most Green Bay Packers fans already knew the outcomes. Sure, maybe the Packers would win, but they probably wouldn’t. And if they did, it would be because Aaron Rodgers would make Thor’s hammer look like a Playschool toy.

A Dom Capers defense against a top quarterback was a fait accompli. And by the end, even mediocre to bad quarterbacks torched this Packers defense. In fact, last season, this Green Bay passing defense made just about every quarterback it played, better (the Packers recent owning of Russell Wilson not withstanding).

Enter Mike Pettine, one of the few defensive coordinators to look down the barrel of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick on the road in a playoff game and come out on top.

In five seasons as a defensive coordinator, Pettine has never not coordinated a top-10 defense, that includes a season in Buffalo without Rex Ryan. In Cleveland, has head coach, Pettine put together another top-10 defense in his first season with the Browns, countering any insistence that his success comes from Ryan.

Yes, it’s Ryan’s defense — though if we’re being all the way honest, we aren’t even talking about the right Ryan because it’s Rex’s father Buddy Ryan’s defense, just adapted to a more modern game.

But more to the point, Pettine’s defenses haven’t rolled out red carpets for the top quarterbacks in the league the way Dom Capers’ teams have.

I looked at his history as a defensive coordinator — his four seasons in New York and the single season in Buffalo — to find how he fared against quarterbacks who made multiple Pro Bowls.

Using that standard hardly assures only “good” quarterbacks make the list, but it’s hard to argue when Tom Brady shows on the schedule twice every one of those seasons, and there are plenty more games against guys like Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, and Philip Rivers.

Including playoffs, Pettine’s defenses faced 41 multiple Pro Bowlers and his teams went 16-23 (but they 4-2 in the playoffs ... more on that later).

This win-loss record says more about Mark Sanchez and the offense than the defense.

In those games, opposing quarterbacks completed just 59.1% of their throws, averaged 7.1 yards per attempt on 233.4 yards per game, and posted a quarterback rating of 87.1.

Only ten of those 41 games included an opposing quarterback putting up a passer rating over 100, just six featured three or more touchdown passes, and only two put up four or more.

For context, the Packers averaged an opponent passer rating of 102 last season, second-worst in the league. And that includes games against Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco, DeShone Kizer, and Mitchell Trubisky.

Imagine how bad it would be if they’d only faced quality quarterbacks.

We can put those numbers into even better context. That 59% completion figure would have been the 10th best in the league in 2017. The 87.07 passer rating against would have been 16th last season.

And if “Pro Bowl QB-facing-Mike Pettine” were a single player, he’d have been tied for 16th in YPA last season, 14th in yards per game, and 17th in passer rating.

Instead of taking bad quarterbacks and making them solid, or solid quarterbacks and making them great, Pettine’s defense have done the reverse: he takes good quarterbacks and makes them average.

If we take the Capers criticism a step further, the failings in the playoffs, where the Packers defense couldn’t get a stop to save their lives (and often lost their playoff lives as a result), stand out in even starker contrast to Pettine’s track record.

In 16 playoff games for the Packers — a full season’s worth of games — the defense is giving up 26.4 points per game, 60.7% completion, 8.02 YPA, and a 91.5 passer rating.

For comparison, Drew Brees led the league in yards per attempt this season at 8.1.

And those numbers include the Russell Wilson four-interception game, a Caleb Hanie performance, and a Joe Webb sighting. In other words, Dom Capers’ playoff defense is worse, even including games against sub-elite quarterbacks, than Pettine’s defenses have been against the very best in the game.

What about Pettine in the playoffs? The sample size is much smaller, but given the quarterbacks he faced, the numbers speak volumes.

In those half-dozen playoff games, the Jets faced Peyton Manning twice, Carson Palmer, Philip Rivers, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger.

For those games, the Pettine defenses gave up 19.8 points per game, 62.4% completions, 7.2 YPA, and an 85.0 passer rating.

Not only are those numbers a full touchdown better than Capers, but they’re actually better in points per game and passer rating allowed than his regular season performance.

In that 41 game sample against “good” quarterbacks, Pettine’s defenses allowed 23.8 points per game, which would have been 22nd in the league this season. In the playoffs, their 19.83 points per game number would have been 8th.

Put another way, Pettine’s defenses, on the biggest stage against the Hall of Fame quarterbacks, raise their level of play rather than succumb to the virtuoso talents they’re facing.

Plenty of Packers fans wanted Vic Fangio (this author included), but these numbers make one thing abundantly clear: no matter how you felt about Mike Pettine being hired over some of the options out there, he’s an upgrade over Dom Capers. He’s been in high-leverage games against the best players to ever play and withstood the onslaught.

Considering how many games the Packers have lost on the last play because they couldn’t get stops, it’s not hard to believe even an incremental change for the better could be the difference between winning and losing a playoff game.

Pettine’s defenses helped Mark Sanchez go to the AFC Championship Game twice. Imagine what he can do with Aaron Rodgers.