GREEN BAY — No one in the Green Bay Packers organization — and that includes coach Mike McCarthy — is more qualified to opine on what Mike Pettine could do for the franchise’s much-maligned defense than Tramon Williams.
Not only did the veteran cornerback play in Dom Capers’ system for six of the eight years he spent with the Packers on his first tour of duty in Green Bay (2007-2014), but he also played in Cleveland in 2015 during Pettine second season as Browns head coach. No other player on the Packers roster has played for both Capers and Pettine.
“Tramon, his experience is so unique,” McCarthy said. “He had some great years (in Green Bay) in the early years, and then left and has a whole other set of experience, and now he’s able to bring that back, see the changes we’ve made since then. So he just brings a whole different perspective of leadership and experience.”
And with none other than McCarthy himself having established Williams’ bona fides, Williams’ recent constructive criticism about the Packers’ past defensive scheme and his contrasting it with Pettine’s approach should carry that much more weight.
Speaking in an interview earlier this month on ESPNWisconsin’s “Wilde & Tausch,” Williams characterized Capers’ scheme as antiquated — after a terrific run in its early years in Green Bay — and said he believes Pettine’s approach will be more adaptable to what opponents throw at the Packers this season.
“Obviously, I think a new scheme and look to this defense is what we really needed,” Williams said, pointing out that the five defenses coordinated by Pettine with the New York Jets (2009-2012) and Buffalo Bills (2013) never finished outside the top 10 in the NFL in total defense. “I think Mike’s defense is modern-day.
“I was here in the era when Dom first came in. When Dom first came in, Dom’s defense was modern era. (But) obviously the league caught up to it. It was one of those things where the league catches up to it and you have to make certain adjustments. And over the years, those adjustments weren’t made.
“Now you have a whole new (type of) offense. Quarterbacks are better. It’s a passing league. Things have to change and you have to make adjustments. And I think Mike has that mindset of knowing how to get to quarterbacks and knowing how to attack protections and these different things while keeping it simple.”
When hired in January, Pettine said that he wants his defenses “to appear multiple,” but not be as complex to the players as they look to opponents. “I know people have said the system can be very complicated. We like to appear multiple without necessarily putting that much stuff in,” Pettine said. “So, it’s not a system that is overwhelming to learn.”
That would explain why safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, after getting his first look at the playbook when he returned for the offseason program in mid-April, used the Pettine-Rex Ryan buzzwords of “likable and learnable” to describe his first impression of the scheme.
“I’m excited about where this defense can go this year,” Clinton-Dix said. “Last year was last year. This definitely is a new year and I think we’re all excited and pumped up about it.”
Pettine also said he and McCarthy connected in part because of a shared philosophy of “integrating old-school techniques, old-school foundation, but also using cutting-edge and thinking outside the box. That’s where I think we were really in tune.”
While loyal to Capers, who held the coordinator job for nine seasons (2009-2017) but didn’t have a top-10 defense after his 2009 and 2010 units were among the league’s best, McCarthy has not admitted that Capers’ tried-and-true approach wasn’t able to keep up with the times or wasn’t as effective at using the greater amount of data available to coaches nowadays.
When asked at the NFL Meetings in March whether he should have changed coordinators sooner, McCarthy said no. “I don’t have any regrets on the path,” he said, later pointing out that he also changed offensive coordinators (from Edgar Bennett to Joe Philbin). “I did not feel like I could advance where we were with the offensive staff and the defensive staff, and that’s why I made the changes.”
Players will get their most extensive exposure to the playbook when organized team activity practices kick off May 21. That’s when the coaching staff will install the playbook for the first time — they’ll reinstall it during training camp, which begins with its first practice on July 26 — and players will be able to run 11-on-11 plays, which they have yet to do during Phase I and Phase II of the offseason program.
They’ll also get to test-drive Pettine’s scheme against quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the offense at almost full speed, albeit without pads.
But even so far, just in meetings and instructional periods, Pettine has already made an impression with his intellect and intensity.
“It’s like I’m talking to myself sometimes,” said defensive tackle Mike Daniels, who is coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance. “You don’t have a top-10 defense everywhere you go by accident.
“Last year was definitely tough, and I think we learned something — that we can’t be so reliant on our quarterback. Even though he is one of the greatest players to ever play the game. We still have to take care of our business as well — and that’s everybody. We just have to do better. We have to make it so Aaron feels that he can rely on me as much as everyone relies on him.
“We have to be a lot more competitive. I think everyone looked themselves in the mirror and said, ‘We have to hold ourselves accountable for our production.’ … I definitely feel that starts with the scheme and coach Pettine. I’ve told these guys on offense, ‘You are going to have a very tough time against this scheme.’ I’m really looking forward to getting out there again and running around with them.”
[Correction: The years Mike Pettine spent with the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills were wrong in an earlier version of this story.]