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Packers players embrace defensive attitude adjustment under Mike Pettine

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It’s only the first week of June, but the Packers’ new defensive coordinator is already making friends.

NFL: Green Bay Packers-Rookie Minicamp
Mike Pettine has the Packers defensive players excited to play for the first time in years.
Mark Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Pettine can’t stop saying the right things. He’s the new mayor of the Green Bay Packers’ defense after an arduous slog through the tenure of his predecessor. Dom Capers’ approval rating in Wisconsin would make even Congress blush.

Whether it was emphasizing pass defense and flexibility in his introductory press conference, or insisting the Packers mindset was more important than the defensive scheme, Pettine won over his players before the pads even went on.

“I love him,” Davon House told ESPN’s Rob Demovsky. “Love the energy he brings. You can feel the juice in the meetings room and on the field. Guys flying around ... So far it’s great. Not good, but great as you saw today out there on the practice field.”

Don’t mistake the player friendliness for softness. In a stark departure from Capers, Pettine stopped a drill during OTAs to lay into the guys over their lack of focus. That’s something that would have been left to the veterans on the team to sort out. The problem with that is Capers had precious few veterans to lead this squad once guys like Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams left.

The last few seasons, the leadership cupboard on defense had been bare. Williams returning to the Packers was predicated on the team’s need for cornerback depth, but his veteran presence and experience in Pettine’s scheme may be even more valuable.

And it was Williams who called out Capers’ lack of schematic adjustments in a recent radio interview, pointing out the scheme itself isn’t much different from what Pettine runs or what he was executing in Arizona. Instead, the key difference was a lack of flexibility and disguise. Offenses knew what Capers wanted to do and that makes life too easy for quarterbacks and offensive coordinators.

This defense isn’t going to be better in 2018 because Pettine employs some wildly different scheme to what fans are used to seeing, or other teams are used to watching on film. The attitude is what’s truly different. When players believe in a scheme, enjoy playing it, and fly around with confidence it will work—all things this defense lacked under Dom Capers—there’s a certain amount of kinetic energy that breeds success.

Guys still have to know what’s going on, still have to make the proper read and go make the tackle or the pass break up. But when players are excited to go execute a gameplan, they’re going to play differently than when they’re begging their coach to play something else. Or worse in the case of someone like Damarious Randall, who often acted indifferently toward his assignment and either freelanced or played passively seemingly out of spite at times.

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix drew criticism from fans much of last season in part because he appeared either incapable or disinterested in making plays on the ball or attacking downhill to tackle in support. But a huge mitigating factor last season was playing next to a rookie in a scheme where the safeties are nowhere near the action. How can he feel engaged and involved in the game when he’s essentially schemed out of being either of those things?

But when your team’s mantra is KILL (an acronym much more benign than it seems, standing for Keep It Likable and Learnable), that breeds a different kind of energy, a mentality of aggressiveness and playmaking.

Pettine brings a more malleable, aggressive scheme, one he’s going to adjust each week, tailoring the plan to the opponent. That alone would have been enough to upgrade over the ex-mayor of the defense at 1265. That platform is a winner. More than that, the attitude adjustment has already paid dividends, with young players perfectly suited for Pettine’s scheme making an impact.

Don’t underestimate the marriage of Brian Gutekunst and Pettine. There was always a dissonance to the style Capers wanted to play and the way Ted Thompson preferred to build a franchise. Gutekunst supplied Pettine with a pair of corners who want to press, want to play fast, and get in your face.

Aaron Rodgers has already noticed how much they like to talk, Jaire Alexander in particular. And with good reason: Alexander got QB1 on a pick already in OTAs. It’s not lost on Rodgers how important that swagger is for cornerbacks. He said so outright, after (half) joking he was going to have to “dice them up a little” bit for talking too much.

Cornerbacks playing with too much swagger. Imagine such a problem under Capers.