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Mike Pettine’s replacement will tell us how close Packers think defense is to competing

Someone new will call the Packers defense in 2021, but will they be that new? If Green Bay believes the group to be close, Matt LaFleur could opt for an internal hire, prizing continuity and showing faith in the talent.

NFL: Green Bay Packers Training Camp
Mike Pettine won’t be back in 2021, but one of his current coaches could take his place.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY NETWORK via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The D-Train will be back in 2021, but someone else will be making sure it runs on time. With the Friday reports that the Green Bay Packers will move on from Mike Pettine, the kinds of candidate Matt LaFleur interviews — and the person ultimately given the job — will tell us how big an overhaul the organization believes this defense needs to get them to Super Bowl quality. If he believes in the talent, in the investment Brian Gutekunst made in overhauling this unit, Mike Smith or Jerry Gray would offer continuity in the scheme with a new set of ideas at the top. A splashier hire like Jim Leonhard or Wade Phillips could speak to the desire to undergo a more significant rebuild.

The decision to move on from Pettine won’t be controversial among fans. The Athletic’s Mike Sando dug deep into the analytics to show the perpetual incompetency of the Green Bay defense in the playoffs during the Rodgers era, of course not all of that laid at the feet of Pettine. Packer Report’s Ross Uglem dove into that problem specifically and came to the same conclusion LaFleur did: it’s time to move on.

Most teams interview internal candidates when they move on from coordinators, even if just for practice. It’s useful for position coaches to get reps in these settings to ultimately succeed elsewhere. Head coaches, and LaFleur in particular, like to get their guys these reps so they can move onto bigger jobs elsewhere. But the Packers do have quality coaches on the staff who could draw legitimate consideration.

Jerry Gray, the new defensive backs coach in 2020, boasts experience as the head man of a defense, having done it in Buffalo and Tennessee. Gray’s reputation as an excellent teacher and respected defensive backs coach gives him a real chance to win LaFleur over in an interview. The leap Jaire Alexander made this season, along with the development of Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos, add another feather in his already well-adorned cap.

Mike Smith called the defense in college at Texas Tech, but has never been at the helm of an NFL defense. Still, he’s considered one of the bright young coaches in the NFL and his work with Rashan Gary on the heels of what he did with Dee Ford hints at a coach with teaching pedigree. He’s also a feisty competitor, the kind of football coach’s football coach who may well appeal to LaFleur’s aesthetic, dip and all.

And while Jerry Montgomery may not have the experience, he was set to be co-defensive coordinator with Mike Stoops at Oklahoma before the Packers hired him away in 2015. He was one of the few holdovers from Mike McCarthy’s staff and is a highly thought-of position coach who could garner consideration as well.

That’s a good start. But the vision for this defense may be more different than we realize. The degree to which LaFleur wants to switch course will be reflected in his decision on the next coach.

Remember, LaFleur picked Pettine insofar as he ultimately decided to retain him, but the way it’s been reported, the Packers suggested Pettine stay and LaFleur agreed, reportedly including Pettine in a list of potential DCs he’d consider as head coach during the interview process.

In San Francisco, Robert Saleh’s defense took a wildly different schematic approach. Sean McVay went from the grizzled veteran Wade Phillips, a blitz-heavy, aggressive man cover coach, to Brandon Staley, the zone-heavy coverage-disguising boy genius. In Cleveland, Joe Woods comes from the Phillips tree, but spent 2019 in San Francisco with Saleh.

During his original staff search, LaFleur displayed a preference for diverse backgrounds and young-ish coaches. On the other hand, he retained Pettine and hired Gray. Trying to pin down just where he might go will be tough, though fans already have guys like Phillips and Wisconsin’s Jim Leonhard on the wish list.

Phillips would likely keep the base of the defense intact with the three-man front, but feature more man coverage. That works well for Alexander, but leads to even more pressing questions about the future of players like Kevin King and Josh Jackson. There is at least some level of continuity there, but would feature more man coverage, which LaFleur asked for all season.

Leonhard comes from Pettine’s “tree” if you will, and would offer an easier transition to his vision of the defense. He showed a propensity to squeeze out the most from marginal talent at Wisconsin thanks to running a disciplined team that plays fast and decisively. In a lot of ways, he’s the ideal LaFleur candidate for those reasons. He’s an up-and-coming coach with fresh ideas, but his scheme overlap would reduce the learning curve for a team in 2021 ready to compete.

If LaFleur went with a coach like Kris Richard or someone off the Saleh tree, it would speak to a more meaningful change philosophically, particularly with a transition to a four-man front. The front office would have to shake off their disinterest in the linebacker position. And we would expect plenty of single-high safety looks with Cover-3 the base look.

There are ways to walk the line between keeping the system in place while making meaningful change. The degree to which LaFleur believes changes must be made will be clear once a hire is made. Green Bay boasts legitimately qualified internal candidates, several external candidates who wouldn’t blow up the status quo, and dozens more who would bring a wrecking ball to it.

So while we won’t know if the new hire will be an upgrade over Pettine when the hire is made, we’ll know where LaFleur thinks this defense stands and where it needs to get to in order to help the Packers win a title.