When the Packers traded Damarious Randall, the team’s best cornerback in 2017, the terror from Cheesehead Nation was palpable. Ted Thompson spent the last half decade pretending like this defense could muddle through with Lambeau hot dog vendors and parking lot attendants in the secondary.
Brian Gutekunst, a Ted Thompson disciple, would be more of the same for the Packers, the defense wouldn’t get better, and Green Bay fans would be stuck wondering yet again what it could accomplish with Aaron Rodgers if he even had a passable defense.
But then Mike Pettine injected life into a pallid group, bringing with him a verve permeating a defensive unit without much juice since Charles Woodson left town. Gutekunst brought veterans Muhammad Wilkerson and Tramon Williams in on value deals and re-signed Davon House to reinforce the cornerback position.
Kevin King will be able to play with two working arms this season after having to muddle through his rookie year like the Tin Man without his oil can.
Rookies Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson mainline athleticism into a secondary that hasn’t had playmakers since the last time Williams patrolled the Green Bay back end. Another rookie, Oren Burks, compliments thumping run-stuffer Blake Martinez at linebacker with a speed and versatile coverage ability out of Vanderbilt.
One could argue every level of this defense should be better in 2018 simply with the arrival of Pettine who, in a shocking and revelatory twist post-Dom Capers, believes in adapting his scheme to his players and his opponent. With the influx of talent and athleticism, there’s every reason to believe the Packers should be better this season on that side of the ball.
But how much better? This could be the key question that ultimately defines how far the Packers go in 2018. And we have to establish expectations before we can define what ultimately makes them successful. After all, success should be based on what this team is capable of doing, what it should do. Talentless teams can have successful seasons simply by showing growth, or discipline. Success or failure should be reflective of expectations.
Last year the Packers finished 20th in defensive DVOA, 8th against the run and 27th against the pass.
Let’s start with the good: this Green Bay run defense should be even better in 2018. Wilkerson offers a powerful, run-stuffing body up front with length to control blockers and keep the linebackers and safety free to make players. We already know the Mike Daniels-Kenny Clark combination has dominating ability and this might be the best three-man line in football.
Another year of Clark’s development—remember, he’s still just 22 years old—and he could be in the Pro Bowl alongside Daniels and/or Wilkerson. There’s legitimately the potential for all three to selected if they stay healthy.
Anything less than a top-10 run defense should be considered a failure.
The passing defense presents a trickier evaluation. How does Kevin King evolve and grow in Year 2? Should we simply throw 2017 away when he struggled in coverage? How much will playing more press man benefit him given his size and frame and how much will that learning curve turn ‘18 into a de facto rookie season?
Given his talent, the answers to those questions could drastically alter the possible outcomes for this team.
Tramon Williams appears to have enough left after a quality season in Arizona to contribute as a starting cornerback for the Packers, but expect House, Alexander and Jackson to all push for playing time as Pettine will have this defense in a nickel look much of the season. One of that trio will have to be a starter and given Williams’ age along with King’s injury history, the other two could see significant playing time as well.
But given how much better Pettine’s scheme fits the physical ability of this personnel, this passing defense should be better even before adding the rookies. Mix in their playmaking ability and athletic gifts, and this secondary has a chance to make a significant leap. The good news is they can’t get much worse; only five teams were last season.
That said, don’t expect a top-10 passing defense right away, particularly with the lack of pass rush talent. The secondary can’t do it all and we know the injury risks with Nick Perry and Clay Matthews. On the other hand, even with those issues last season, the Packers finished 9th in adjusted sack rate. They were a top-10 pass rush even if it didn’t feel like it at times. Blame the secondary for those struggles ahead of any other factor.
If Green Bay gets some year 2 growth from Vince Biegel and Reggie Gilbert, plus moderately healthy seasons from Perry and CMIII, this should give this secondary enough time to make some plays in the back end.
It’s not unrealistic to think the Packers could, at the very least, be a top-20 passing defense. That may not seem like a huge leap, but remember this has been a disaster zone for two straight seasons. And that 2015 group, which finished 6th in passing defense DVOA, featured Sam Shields, Casey Hayward, and a rookie Damarious Randall who played extremely well.
This secondary might be that talented, and potentially even more physically gifted, but remains far less proven. Luckily, the run defense should be much better, which gives the Packers the chance to sneak into that 10-16 range overall in defense.
Given where the Packers were last year (20th), the changes to scheme and personnel, anything below average overall should be considered a failure assuming marginal health. If they finish right at 15th or 16th, that would be “fine” but I’m not sure that’s a qualitative success depending on the circumstances.
A success isn’t just “don’t be a liability.” This unit is too talented and now too well coached for that to be the baseline. The Packers defense should be solid this season, and if it is, not only will that be a success for them, it likely portends success for the team as a whole.