Tom Oates: Packers defense has ingredients to be a top-flight unit

Tom Oates: Packers defense has ingredients to be a top-flight unit

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Rookie outside linebacker Rashan Gary, a first-round pick, is one of several newcomers on defense this season.

CHICAGO — Long before The Great Audible Controversy began, the No. 1 hot-button topic regarding the Green Bay Packers offense was how general manager Brian Gutekunst hadn’t given quarterback Aaron Rodgers any new weapons.

But while that statement is spot-on when it comes to running backs and receivers, nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, during the offseason the Packers gave Rodgers the best weapon any quarterback can have:

A defense.

For the first time since the second half of the 2014 season, Rodgers won’t go into a game figuring he has to put up at least 30 points to give the Packers a chance at winning. And for the first time since the Super Bowl season in 2010, the Packers defense might be able to go out and win a game all by itself.

Of course, we don’t know any of that for sure at this point. With first-year coach Matt LaFleur protecting his regulars from injury, Rodgers didn’t play during the preseason and the defenders who will start in tonight’s season opener against the Chicago Bears played sparingly, if at all.

But if the many new faces on defense live up to their billing and the returnees show an improved understanding of second-year defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s ever-changing schemes, they might be able to transform what has been a chronic weak link into the Packers’ first top-10 defense since 2010. That would make LaFleur’s job easier as he works to bring the offense into the 21st century.

As is often the case in the NFL, major personnel changes in Green Bay didn’t take place until after the coach’s first season. The defense was somewhat improved under Pettine last season, but once he was able to assess the personnel, the overhaul began.

The unit the Packers put on the field tonight will feature improved size, length and speed. The personnel changes also blurred the lines between positions — cornerback and safety, safety and inside linebacker, outside linebacker and defensive end — giving Pettine the versatility he needs to produce the multiple defense that has been successful at his previous NFL stops.

That’s because, unlike last year, Pettine has players who fit into his scheme. It’s no coincidence that the biggest names who departed — end Mike Daniels and outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry — didn’t have the length or bulk that would allow Pettine to mix-and-match along his front line, a key component of a defense that sends waves of pass rushers at the quarterback in hopes of giving the secondary chances for takeaways.

“I do believe that we’ve gotten better,” cornerback Tramon Williams said. “We’ve gotten faster as a defense. I won’t go as far as saying that it’s all his kind of players, but I think we’ve got some really good players in general. Those guys have shown a lot of promise so far, but only time is going to tell how good we’re really going to be. We can sit here and say how good we’re going to be, but we do that every year. We’ve still got to go out and prove it.”

How radical was the second-year makeover on defense? Of the 21 players who had the most snaps last season, only 10 remain. Longtime stalwarts such as Daniels, Matthews and Perry are gone and most of the safeties vanished without a trace. Of the primary starters in 2018, only four — nose tackle Kenny Clark, end Dean Lowry, inside linebacker Blake Martinez and cornerback Jaire Alexander — are likely to start against the Bears tonight.

The offseason began with the aggressive free agent signings of all-purpose safety Adrian Amos and rangy outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith for a total of $155 million. Gutekunst continued to alter the defense in the draft, taking Rashan Gary, another rangy outside linebacker, and explosive safety Darnell Savage with his two first-round picks.

The Smiths will start at outside linebacker and Amos and Savage will start at safety, bolstering two of the defense’s most unproductive positions with three proven veterans and a rookie, Savage, who combines speed and smarts.

All of which has the Packers extremely optimistic about the potential on defense.

“It’s through the roof,” said Williams, who once played for Pettine in Cleveland.

Cornerback Kevin King agreed, declaring, “The sky is the limit.”

Their optimism stems from the players’ understanding of the scheme and the unit gaining cohesiveness after a year in Pettine’s system.

“I think it’s something we’ve been talking about throughout preseason, just harping on that we could be special,” Martinez said. “It’s just been working every single day to get there because it’s one thing to talk about it but it’s another thing to go out there and do it.”

There are some worries, of course. Though his natural coverage ability is obvious, King has been injury-prone during his first two seasons. And the Packers spent the entire offseason planning ways to use fast inside linebacker Oren Burks, but he’s currently sidelined with a partially torn pectoral muscle.

Still, Pettine finally has the body-types, the talent and the versatility he needs to improve the unit’s ability to force turnovers. And if the defense becomes the quarterback’s best friend, it may not matter whether or not LaFleur lets Rodgers call audibles.

Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com.

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