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The People v. Mike Pettine

Mounting evidence suggests that Pettine is not the man for the job.

NFL: SEP 05 Packers at Bears Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Today I would like to put forth a case against Packers defensive coordinator Michael Mark Pettine. The charges I am bringing forth as the representative of the people in this case are that he is unfit for office and has committed gross negligence.

I would like to note before I present evidence that Mike Pettine is not the sole reason the Packers defense is struggling. It is not Mike Pettine’s fault that the only meaningful capital the Packers have spent on the defensive line is Kenny Clark. It is not Mike Pettine’s fault that Dean Lowry stopped becoming useful as soon as he signed his extension. It is not Mike Pettine’s fault that the last time the Packers invested meaningful capital at the linebacker position was AJ Hawk and Abdul Hodge in 2006 (The #1 song on the pop charts during this draft was “Bad Day” by Daniel Powter). It’s not Mike Pettine’s fault that the Packers have missed on almost every defensive player they’ve drafted in the first two rounds since 2010 (Mike Neal, Jerel Worthy, Datone Jones, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins, Kevin King (?), Josh Jones, Josh Jackson (?), Rashan Gary (?), Darnell Savage (?)). It’s not Mike Pettine’s fault that Casey Hayward and Micah Hyde left and found success elsewhere before his tenure even started. The Packers defensive struggles are an organizational failure. Coaches are supposed to be value-adds though. They’re supposed to make a unit greater than the sum of its parts. This is what Kyle Shanahan does with the 49ers offense. This is what Matt LaFleur does with Green Bay’s offense. This is what Brian Flores is doing with Miami’s defense. This is what Todd Bowles has done for defenses for years. This is not what Mike Pettine is doing in Green Bay.

First Argument: The Packers Have Spent on Defense

Whilst the Packers have lit defensive draft picks on fire for much of the past decade, it hasn’t been a total miss. Kenny Clark and Jaire Alexander are star performers. Jaire Alexander might be the best cornerback in the NFL. The Packers have also invested heavily at EDGE with the Smiths. A major weakness was at the safety position, which Green Bay threw major resources at by drafting Darnell Savage (who has not been good) and signing Adrian Amos. The Packers rank 10th in the NFL in cap dollars spent on defense. The Packers defense is not talented enough to be a great unit, but there’s enough talent, and particularly enough premier talent, that it should not rank 29th in DVOA.

Second Argument: Missing the Obvious

Whilst the Vikings game is fresh in our memory, I would like to look back a little bit and open some old wounds. The NFC Championship Game last season should have been Mike Pettine’s last game as a defensive coordinator in the National Football League.

Despite knowing going into the game what the 49ers were going to do, the Packers defense was unable to stop it. 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo attempted only eight passes whilst the ground game churned through the Packers soft run defense.

Head Coach Matt LaFleur said after the game that they knew exactly what San Francisco was going to do, but didn’t stop it. “They definitely out-coached us...It’s disappointing because it’s not like we didn’t know what they were going to try and do. We knew exactly what they were going to try to do. We knew they were going to run the football.”

LaFleur’s criticism was not just for Pettine. He challenged his edge-setters, primarily the Smiths. And it’s true: they didn’t do well enough. That game is not entirely on Pettine in the same way that no game is ever entirely on any coach. The players still need to execute, but such a steamrolling is still damning for a coach.

The first introduction to this problem in 2020 was against the New Orleans Saints. Below, I present the following chart from evidence:

Drew Brees cannot throw the ball down the field at all anymore. Per ESPN Stats & Information Group, prior to yesterday’s game against Chicago, Brees attempted to throw the ball at least 20 yards downfield on just 3.3% of his attempts. That is just over half of the next lowest season on record: Alex Smith in 2014. You would expect against a quarterback like Brees you would flood the short areas with bodies and ask him to try and beat you deep. What we saw was the typical cushiony coverage from Green Bay’s defenders. A defense that is designed to prevent big plays over the top facing a quarterback who is physically restricted from doing so. New Orleans was without star receiver Michael Thomas, so it became quite clear what their plan was going to be: short throws to Alvin Kamara in space. That is what we got.

This play is not Mike Pettine’s fault, for the record. The Packers defense has to eventually tackle someone. What is a problem however is that Brees was never asked to do anything he didn’t want to do. He had zero passes down the field, and the Packers sacked Brees only twice. The reason New Orleans could dink and dunk is because the Packers defense was not interested in making those shorter throws untenable, despite that being the only way New Orleans can move the ball this year.

The next piece of evidence comes from the most recent unpleasantness. The Vikings are the most run-heavy team in the NFL in game-neutral situations. They have a very good runningback. The winds were gusting up to 40 mph. It was basically impossible to throw the ball down the field with any real accuracy. And yet Dalvin Cook strolled for 163 rushing yards, an additional 63 receiving yards, and four total touchdowns. Again, not all of this is Pettine’s fault. The defense was bad no matter how many guys he put in the box.

There were yet again, missed tackles EVERYWHERE. At some point I do wonder if this is a coaching problem, although that may not fall directly on Pettine. I don’t feel that it is necessary to the case, but the fact that the defense cannot seem to tackle anyone certainly does not bode well for he and his staff.

What is perhaps even more bizarre than the running freedom that Cook enjoyed is that Kirk Cousins didn’t have to do anything difficult.

NFL Next Gen Stats

With the winds killing any chance Minnesota would push the ball downfield, Kirk was able to complete short passes at will. As you can see in the video below, Cousins passes are largely a series of 10-yard cushions and dump-offs.

The Packers did a good job of protecting grass that Kirk was never going to throw to, but did a poor job actually contesting what Minnesota wanted to do. I know Pettine’s mantra of defense is “bend don’t break” but when the opposing team can’t break you over the top due to either the physical limitations of the quarterback or the weather, you should be adapting what you do. Not to mention, Green Bay has been horrendous in the red zone on defense this year.

Their stronger play, particularly in the red zone last year was heavily reliant on interceptions, and often by Kevin King. As I discussed here, interceptions are highly volatile year-over-year, and Green Bay’s defense was pretty mediocre last year without them. That mediocrity came with career years from both of the Smiths, which has not been replicated this year.

On these three occasions, it was painfully obvious what the opponent was going to do. The 49ers were going to run the ball. The Saints were going to throw it short. The Vikings were going to run the ball and only throw it short. The 49ers got .4 EPA/play running the ball in the NFC Championship Game. That is 4.5x as good as the #1 rushing team in the NFL last year. The Saints passing EPA/play was .27, which would rank fifth in the NFL, despite the fact they were down their top wide receiver and their quarterback will not throw the ball down the field. The Vikings EPA/play on running plays was .2, which is double the #1 team in the NFL this year. Their passing EPA/play was .84, which is 2.38x as good as the Kansas City Chiefs offense. They did that with 40 mph wind gusts and without a single attempt beyond nine yards.

Third Argument: The Silly Stuff

These don’t all fit into one category and are moreso nails in the coffin than primary reasons. First, we have the obnoxious cushion in short yardage situations.

There is no rational reason for this coverage on the bottom. It is quite literally a free play, and it was noticed by everyone watching as it was happening. This play alone tells you everything you need. However, there are more.

Could I interest you in a free first down? I could go on and on with these, but if you’d like to see people complaining about Mike Pettine defenses giving large cushions on 3rd and short-to-medium, I invite you to just search “Pettine cushion” on Twitter. It goes at least as far back as his Browns head coaching days. There is even data to show that the Packers play a particularly cushiony brand of defense on 3rd down.

Then there is the “I’m not sure why he’s playing there” group of things. Here is 6-foot-5,’ 265 pound EDGE Preston Smith playing boundary cornerback against a tight end.

Then there is Mike Pettine ruining Wisconsin’s Vince Biegel by playing him as a four-point stance nose-tackle for some reason.

While Biegel has missed all of 2020 with an achilles injury, he did play pretty well for the Dolphins last season as an actual EDGE. His 8.7% pressure rate in 2019 ranked him alongside Trent Murphy and Whitney Mercilus. But you know, play the undersized-athletic EDGE guy at nose-tackle in the pre-season or something.

Conclusion:

In Pettine’s two full seasons in Green Bay, his defense’s have ranked 29th and 15th in DVOA. The 15th is buoyed heavily by the unsustainable interception rate and a laughable slate of quarterbacks from that season. His 2020 defense currently ranks 29th, and is actually worse against the pass (25th) than against the run (22nd).

Mike Pettine is not the only problem with the Packers defense, but the Packers have spent enough capital on that side of the ball to not be bad, he is unable to create a gameplan to stop things that the opponent is obviously going to do, and he often puts his players in untenable positions.

The prosecution rests.