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Packers DC Mike Pettine goes small amid injuries, puts clamps on Bears passing game

The Packers new defensive coordinator said before the year he was focused on stopping passing games. He delivered in Week 1.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers
Pettine relied on his defensive backs, rather than safeties and linebackers, to fill in for Oren Burks and Josh Jones.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Before the historic comeback, the Aaron Rodgers dramatics, and a heart-pounding 24-23 win in Week 1, the Chicago Bears opened their offensive season going 86 yards in 10 plays for an impressive touchdown. The drive ate up over six minutes of clock and the Green Bay Packers’ switch from Dom Capers to Mike Pettine didn’t appear to change much at all.

Tackling was shoddy. Assignments weren’t sure. Coverage was soft and Green Bay’s defense was once again in read-and-react mode, rather than coming downhill to attack a young quarterback in a new offense.

But Pettine had a plan.

Before the season, Mike McCarthy’s new hire to run the defense insisted that the top way to get beat is to give up plays in the passing game. As such, his priority was to mitigate opposing aerial attacks. With Oren Burks and Josh Jones sidelined with injuries, Pettine did something Dom Capers often drew criticism for doing: he went small and essentially decided he’d live with the other team running the ball.

The problem for Capers was his defenses couldn’t stop anyone through the air consistently either. On Sunday night, Pettine played light boxes, often with four cornerbacks on the field and only one true linebacker, daring the Bears to run the ball. And run it Matt Nagy did, to the tune of 139 yards on 27 carries, a 5.1 per attempt average.

Compare that to Mitch Trubisky’s numbers: he finished 23/35 for 171 yards, just 4.9 yards per attempt.

Pettine rightly realizes the passing game gets teams beat quicker and more efficiently than the run game. If teams want to run the ball and take up small chunks, he’s going to bet his team can get enough stops on early downs to put opponents in second- and third-and-long situations. It worked against the Bears.

After starting with a touchdown and a field goal, the Bears’ next 6 possessions looked like this:

  • 3 plays 4 yards
  • 4 plays -3 yards
  • 3 plays 5 yards
  • 12 plays 60 yards FG
  • 3 plays 8 yards
  • 3 plays 9 yards

The one real blemish for the defense after the early struggles was the Bears second-to-last possession, where they got the ball with nine minutes left and didn’t give it up until just under three minutes left. Even still, the Packers forced a number of third downs that the Bears converted with Trubisky scrambles and some outside-the-framework plays. That’s going to happen for a team playing man coverage as often as the Packers.

Some conservative playcalling killed the Bears as well, but the Green Bay defense made the plays it had to and when it needed to defend a pass, by and large it did that. Pettine set up his defense that way.

The core four defensive back starters — Kevin King, Tramon Williams, HaHa Clinton-Dix, and Kentrell Brice — played every snap. Jaire Alexander played 70% of snaps with Josh Jackson in on 66%. In other words, more often than not, the Packers put four cornerbacks on the field, treating Trey Burton and Tarik Cohen as de facto receivers. Meanwhile, third safety Jermaine Whitehead played just 36% of snaps and Antonio Morrison was essentially an afterthought.

Pettine’s gambit paid off. Trey Burton caught just one of his six targets for 15 yards. Cohen managed just 16 yards on three catches. Allen Robinson was the only player with more than one catch to average double-digit yards per reception (The Packers had four such receivers). When the Bears did make catches, this defense rallied to the ball and came up with a number of stops before the sticks.

Was this tact a reaction to injuries? Fear of Burton and Cohen? Or is this the way Pettine plays to approach offenses? The answer may be a mixture of these and based on what we know about Pettine, his gameplan will change week to week. Most fans won’t complain about getting exciting rookies like Alexander and Jackson opportunities to make play.

Is this the new normal for the Packers? We won’t for at least a week. Bring on the Vikings.