GREEN BAY — Mike Pettine never thought he was getting fired.
Yes, the Green Bay Packers’ defensive coordinator certainly seemed to the outside world to have been left twisting in the wind for a few hours in the wake of rookie head coach Matt LaFleur’s end-of-the-year news conference a few days after the team’s season-ending loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.
How could people not wonder when LaFleur’s reply to a reporter when asked directly if Pettine would be retained — “We’re still working through everything right now, just trying to evaluate everything” — certainly gave the impression he was mulling a change in the wake of the defense’s horrendous showing with a berth in Super Bowl LIV on the line?
And frankly, fans weren’t the only ones wondering, Pettine revealed during a Zoom videoconference call with reporters Friday.
“There was a little angst with my wife about it,” Pettine said. “But other than that, no, I was fine with it. Because I already knew.”
Pettine said he and LaFleur had spoken earlier that day before the head coach’s news briefing about what had happened against the 49ers, who rushed for an astonishing 285 yards in their 37-20 victory, with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo having to throw only eight passes. Running back Raheem Mostert did most of the damage, rushing for 220 yards and four touchdowns.
As bad as that showing was, Pettine said Friday that he and LaFleur had had “a very positive conversation” about how the defense had improved throughout the season and that the two had also had a “very open and honest” discussion about what had gone awry.
Bolstered by the expensive free agent additions of outside linebackers Za’Darius and Preston Smith and safety Adrian Amos, the Packers finished ninth in the 32-team NFL in scoring defense at just 19.6 points per game — the club’s best finish since the 2010 Super Bowl XLV team was second at 15.0 points per game. In Pettine’s first year as defensive coordinator in 2018 under previous coach Mike McCarthy, the Packers were 25th in scoring defense, allowing 25.0 points per game.
In 2019, Green Bay also finished 18th in total defense (352.6 yards per game), and while the Packers were tied for 15th in sacks (41), their pass rush was among the best in the NFL in terms of affecting opposing quarterbacks and applying pressure.
Speaking at the annual NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in February, LaFleur had told reporters that “there was never a doubt” in his mind that Pettine would be back, adding that he was “not going to make a rash decision” based solely on the defense’s performance against the 49ers.
“It was all about moving forward and it as very open and honest and what do we need to do to get better, what are we doing well, what steps needed to be taken to take that jump from making it from the championship game to getting past it,” Pettine said of his postseason conversation with LaFleur. “So there was never a moment where I felt I would be anywhere but in Green Bay.
“I know a lot was made of it. It was an unfortunate thing because I think he was making comments that were more based on just talking about the staff in general evaluation as opposed to getting specific. … He and I had already kind of reviewed the season and talked through a lot of the stuff defensively. So we were very much on the same page.”
And they are in agreement on this much: As bad as that performance was against the 49ers, the run defense must rebound and learn from what went wrong without experiencing a hangover from it.
Through 10 games last year, the Packers ranked 25th in total run defense (126.9 yards per game) and tied for 27th in yards allowed per rush (4.8). Thanks to a strong finish in the final six weeks — a five-game winning streak after an abysmal 37-8 loss to the 49ers coming out of their bye week — the Packers wound up finishing tied for 23rd at 120.1 rushing yards allowed per game and tied for 24th at 4.7 yards allowed per carry.
Asked about the run defense during a conference call with reporters last week, LaFleur pointed to players getting out of their assigned gaps too often, leading to breakout plays.
“Our guys have got to do a great job of just being sound, doing their responsibility,” LaFleur said before praising offseason addition Christian Kirksey, who played for Pettine in Cleveland and is set to take over at inside linebacker for departed free agent Blake Martinez. “(We’re) really, really fortunate, especially considering the circumstances of this offseason, to get a guy that’s been in this system in Christian Kirksey. I’ve been super impressed with him. You can tell he’s a pro. He knows what’s going on already and shoot, we’ve only been meeting for a couple of weeks.”
For those players who aren’t new to the team, though, Pettine said it’s vital for them to move forward from their last on-field showing while not ignoring the mistakes they made against the run.
“I can’t use any other phrase other than beyond disappointing. It’s tough to realize that we played our worst game at the worst time. But at the same point, we own it. We’re not running away from it,” Pettine said. “It’s a huge point of emphasis for us. It’s something we’ve devoted a lot of time to studying, comparing what we’re doing and what we’re coaching to other teams.
“We don’t just blindly think, ‘Hey, I’m not going to look at anything else. We have all the answers.’ We look at a bunch of different factors. Was this a schematic thing? Is there something scheme-wise that’s flawed that they took advantage of? Was this a technique thing? Did we give up a big play because we executed the wrong technique? Or was it a personnel thing? Was it simply their X was better than our O? And each of those answers have corresponding responses to it.
“We feel good about where we are, the knowledge that we have. We’re not going to let it be the dark cloud that hangs over us and let that define us. We have a confident group and they know that when they execute properly and they’re playing with the right leverage and energy and focus and technique — and all that stuff has to mesh together — they know when it’s done the right way that it works and it’s effective. We need to raise our level of consistency, but at the same time, we’re not going to overreact to it.
“We’re not going to all of a sudden jump into a mode where, ‘Hey, we’ve got to stack the line of scrimmage, we’ve got to stop teams from running.’ The formula of the defense we played last year, we won 14 games. That’s a really good thing. So we’re not going to junk our approach over the last game. But we also know we’d be fools to ignore it.”
A Packers spokesperson said Lambeau Field will reopen on Tuesday — but to no more than 75 employees across various departments in accordance with NFL rules and health officials. No coaches and no players will be among those employees allowed back in the building. Also, none of the public-facing aspects of the Packers’ operation, including the 1919 Kitchen & Tap restaurant, the Packers Pro Shop or any Packers-owned aspects of the Titletown district, will be open yet, either. … Pettine sounded as if he’d welcome unsigned veteran defensive back Tramon Williams back if the team were to strike a deal with him but admitted that’s “up in the air.” … Special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga, when asked about the rule proposal of replacing the onside kick with a fourth-and-15 situation to keep the ball, said he has to study the idea further. “My initial reaction as a special-teams person is anytime you take away from special teams, you never want that to happen. But we have to adapt,” he said. “Whatever the league decides, we’ll be ready to go.” … Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said the Packers are at an advantage being in Year 2 of their offensive system and with virtually all their starters back on that side of the ball, but challenges do remain. “I haven’t even really gotten to sit in a meeting room at Lambeau,” he said. “I haven’t gotten to talk with (the players) or work face to face. There’s so much yet to be seen. We just have to prepare everybody and let everybody compete nonstop. I think it’s just too hard to tell with this situation right now.”