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Mike Pettine prioritizes stopping the pass, despite Mike McCarthy’s run focus

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Will the Packers’ head coach get out of the way and let his new hire handle the attitude and approach on defense?

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If the press conferences on Wednesday are any indication, Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy and new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine have a fundamental difference to resolve regarding defensive philosophy.

That difference centers around whether the first focus of a defense is to stop the run or to stop the pass. Despite Pettine’s comments to the media about sharing a passion for analytics and modern ways of thinking with his head coach, McCarthy’s comments about stopping the run would actually seem to indicate a backwards-thinking approach.

“At the end of the day we’re going to stop the run first,” McCarthy said after a lengthy discussion about how to improve the defense. McCarthy talked for a while in cliches, saying that “there’s no magic formula” to fixing the unit and that the team will avoid trying to “put square pegs in a round hole.” However, for the head coach, it always seems to come back to stopping the run first on defense.

Pettine looks at defense very differently.

When the new defensive coordinator got to the podium, he was asked why his defenses have always performed well against the pass. “Because we prioritize it,” Pettine replied. His next statement illustrated his different approach from McCarthy even more clearly: “I think you have to be sound against the run, but you lose a heck of a lot faster when you’re giving up chunks in the pass game.”

That is a drastically different attitude and approach compared to what his boss said less than an hour earlier. However, when considering that the average yards per pass attempt in the NFL is 7.0 compared to the average yards per carry of 4.1, it’s clear to see why Pettine focuses so heavily on stopping teams from moving the ball through the air. In that respect, it will be fascinating to follow this storyline through the offseason and into 2018, to see if the numbers bear out one particular area of focus.

One item that the two do seem to have agree upon, however, is that the scheme will be dictated to some extent by the personnel that occupy the Packers’ roster. McCarthy said as much in his interview, but Pettine expanded on that at length. “The system’s flexible enough (that) our two outside linebackers are our Sam and our Rush, and typically the Rush can put his hand down and line up in a 4-3 alignment,” he said. Extending this to the Packers’ roster, it would be logical for Nick Perry to represent the Rush linebacker, especially given his size and productivity out of a three-point stance at USC, with the more versatile Clay Matthews manning the Sam position.

Pettine went into more detail with his approach as well, referencing the players he had during his tenures with the Jets and Bills. “When I was in New York, Calvin Pace and Bryan Harris had very similar skill sets. When we went to Buffalo, it was Mario Williams and Manny Lawson. Mario we would be very foolish to not have him going towards the quarterback.”

In other words, his linebackers were relatively interchangeable with the Jets, meaning that Pace and Harris would rotate through both positions. In Buffalo, Williams was typically lined up as Rush linebacker with Lawson the Sam, and rarely did they swap spots.

“That’s part of the process now,” Pettine says. “You’ve got to assess who’s on campus.”

It’s entirely possible that when Pettine does assess Matthews, he finds a player who can be used in a multitude of alignments and positions, something he seems to be excited about. Pettine mentioned Matthews’ versatility immediately, particularly his ability to play both inside and outside.

That flexibility would give Pettine valuable tools for a couple of different reasons. “I’ve always believed in having those versatile, hybrid players. First, a guy who can play multiple positions can give you depth.” Pettine seems to like having the ability to plug an injury with a starter from another position in order to get the best eleven men on the field in all situations. “The other thing is from an identification perspective on the other side of the ball. They can’t say this guy’s always in this position.” This goes back to the way Matthews had been used a few years ago, or how Charles Woodson was implemented before that; forcing an offense to identify playmakers on every snap increases the chance for a missed protection or adjustment by the offense, which can easily lead to a big play for the defense.

All told, Pettine wants a taste of victory and playoff success, something he never came close to during his two years as head coach of the Cleveland Browns. His mission is clear, and his words say it best: “I’m here to coordinate an excellent defense and to win a Super Bowl.”

The biggest question remaining is whether Mike McCarthy will let Pettine do that the way he sees fit.