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Football Outsiders: Top-half finish is a good goal for Mike Pettine’s Packers defense

Keeping expectations realistic can be tough, but FO helps keep us grounded on what to expect in Pettine’s first year as Packers DC.

NFL: Green Bay Packers-Training Camp Jim Matthews-USA TODAY Sports

Although there were some notable free agent signings and draft picks affecting the Green Bay Packers’ offense his offseason, the biggest changes to the team’s roster — and its coaching staff — came on the defensive side of the football. Brian Gutekunst brought an old friend back in the secondary, then spent his first three draft picks on defense in an effort to rebuild a unit that had gradually slipped from great to average to awful over Dom Capers’ tenure.

Now, with Mike Pettine at the helm, fans’ expectations are much different for this group in 2018. But are they reasonable? We asked Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders what he thinks the Packers’ defense will look like this season as a result of these changes.

Be sure to check out the 2018 Football Outsiders Almanac for more insights into the Packers and the rest of the NFL.

APC: With new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, several significant additions (Muhammad Wilkerson, Jaire Alexander, etc.), and some noteworthy departures (Morgan Burnett), what do you expect from the Packers defense in 2018?

Tramon Williams may be the only thing that prevents the Packers from having the youngest secondary in the league, but it is a pretty raw unit with highly drafted players that give Mike Pettine a lot to work with. I think the change from Dom Capers to Pettine could be a good one, especially if he helps get more out of pass-rusher Nick Perry like he did with Jerry Hughes in Buffalo. But I really think the defensive line could be the biggest difference when Muhammad Wilkerson is paired with Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels. That should be the strength of this unit in 2018.

The Packers have been 20th in defensive DVOA in each of the last two seasons, so getting into the upper half of the league would be a good debut for Pettine. I wouldn’t expect an elite unit, but as we’ve come to learn with Green Bay, an elite defense is not needed to make the playoffs. It’s only needed to be great (and timely) in the postseason, which was never the case under Capers save for that 2010 Super Bowl run.

Scott referenced the Packers’ use of high draft capital in the secondary, and that is absolutely true; Pettine will have plenty of talent to mold this year. Indeed, every one of the Packers’ draft picks at defensive back over the past two years has specific athletic abilities to salivate over. Josh Jackson showed excellent lateral quickness and explosiveness at the Combine this year and improved his 40 time into the high 4.4s at his Pro Day; Jaire Alexander ran a 4.38 in Indy and had even better agility times than Jackson. Josh Jones has 4.41 speed, absurd for a 6-foot-1, 220-pound player, and Kevin King had one of the best overall Combines by a cornerback in recent memory.

Yes, the success of the secondary will be based largely on how that athleticism translates onto the football field; however, Scott echoes APC’s stance that the defensive line should be this team’s strength. With two Pro Bowlers (Wilkerson and Daniels) and one soon-to-be Pro Bowler (Clark) manning the three-man line, that is as impressive a group as can be. Clark posted 4.5 sacks last year, all of which came in the season’s final five games. Daniels posted five sacks of his own, and Wilkerson is two years removed from a 12-sack season in New York.

As for Pettine himself, the Jerry Hughes callback provides an exciting precedent. In three years with the Colts, Hughes recorded five sacks. Both Hughes and Pettine arrived in Buffalo in 2013, and Hughes posted ten sacks and a pair of forced fumbles. Pettine also did great things with Cleveland’s Paul Kruger in 2014, when Kruger increased his sack numbers from 4.5 the year before to 11. Clearly, Pettine has shown an ability to motivate and develop veteran pass-rushers, and if he can do the same with Nick Perry — even on a lesser scale — that bodes poorly for opposing quarterbacks.

As Scott notes, an elite defense isn’t necessary for the Packers to be a contender, at least not with Aaron Rodgers under center and throwing to an elite wide receiver. Remember that the two most recent NFC Championship appearances that the Packers made were made with defenses ranked 20th in DVOA (2016) and 16th (2014). As long as the offense does not regress to 2015 levels — which was the result of a multitude of injuries to the receiving corps — climbing into the 10-14 range should be more than enough to give the Packers a real shot at a deep playoff run.