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Improving Packers’ secondary is more important than pass rush for Mike Pettine

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Pettine’s defense doesn’t require blue chip pass rushers, but it relies heavily on strong cornerback play.

Mike Pettine’s strength at creating pressure without pass rush talent should focus Green Bay’s attention on adding at cornerback. Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Mike Pettine defenses take the old NFL adage about the pass rush making the secondary better and flips it.

In New York, Darrelle Revis and a versatile group of defensive backs provided the rush just an extra half second to create pressure.

That 2009 team, on a per drive basis, was the best defense of the last decade and one of the best of all time. The best pass rusher on that team was Calvin Pace. In fact, the Jets never really found that go-to dominant edge guy, and it didn’t matter. They had Revis.

But one corner, even one playing at demi-god levels as Revis was, can’t make an entire defense. There’s always the other side of the field to attack. Oh, and a team can always run the ball.

Looking up and down that roster, you won’t find blue chip talent or future Hall of Famers. It was one of the best schemed defenses ever and took advantage of the best cornerback since Deion Sanders. They didn’t just have Revis. They had Mike Pettine and Rex Ryan calling the shots and designing the defense.

That was their advantage.

When Pettine left for Buffalo, he again produced an elite defense, though this time with a stable of pass rushers already in house. Kyle Williams, Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams all produced 10+ sack seasons.

(This, by the way, is where the “Pettine is a product of Rex Ryan not the other way around” argument falls apart. This defense was great with Pettine and got progressively worse once Pettine left and Ryan showed up.)

But in his first year as head coach of the Browns, the Cleveland defense mirrored Pettine’s Jets defenses: one great corner surrounded by a bunch of guys doing their jobs.

Right now, the Packers don’t have a Revis or Joe Haden-level cornerback, at least that we’ve seen. Damarious Randall is a playmaking presence who could flourish under Pettine and Kevin King provides gobs of physical ability.

We’ve seen Pettine elevate players in the past. He coaxed Tashuan Gipson’s lone Pro Bowl appearance out of him in 2014 and made Kiko Alonso look like the next Luke Kuechly as a rookie the year before. He made chicken salad out of chicken safeties, getting productive play from Jim Leonard (on three different teams!), Kerry Rhodes, and Eric Smith.

Can he get the best out of a Randall/King duo? We’re pretty sure he’ll do better than Dom Capers in that department, but what the team really needs is an influx of talent there.

This safety group, with or without Morgan Burnett, has the chance to be the best Pettine has ever coached, though both Gipson and Donte Whitner were Pro Bowlers in his first season with Cleveland. Nick Perry and Clay Matthews, injury-prone though they may be, represent the best pass rushing group Pettine has had outside of his one season in Buffalo.

But he can make it work without elite edge rushers.

That No. 1 defense for the Jets in 2009? They were just 14th in adjusted sack rate. Green Bay was better than that getting to the quarterback last year, but the defense overall was much worse. That’s a function of the secondary being devastated by injury, deployed poorly, and overall failure to execute consistently.

In short, the Packers can rush the passer well enough to be a good defense, but failed to get pressure on third down and in the red zone, a result of poor coaching and an indictment of their overall talent.

An elite edge rusher can just go get you a stop by sheer force of will, but those guys are few and far between in this league.

Good defenses, ones well-schemed to create pressure without elite guys, can get those stops. This is what Rex Ryan and Mike Pettine have always been good at: scheming guys free defensively. Create openings for defenders with creative blitzes to get free rushers on the quarterback.

You can scheme pass rushers free without having good players. You can’t scheme around bad corners.

Green Bay doesn’t have bad ones; Randall and King can both be above average players, but no one on the roster beyond them has proven capable of being effective. Quentin Rollins isn’t an NFL corner. Lenzy Pipkins should get a chance to earn more playing time, but remains unproven. Josh Hawkins shouldn’t be considered more than a special teams player.

This defense needs a boost at cornerback.

Josh Jackson, Denzel Ward, Mike Hughes, Malcolm Butler, Trumaine Johnson. Whether in the draft or free agency or both, by hook or by crook, the Packers have to get better in the secondary.

They can live without adding a top-flight pass rusher. But without a buoying addition at cornerback, this defense may not have a chance to get off the ground.