Aaron Rodgers did not have an Aaron Rodgers-type season in 2018, but the Packers' 6-9-1 record and missed playoff appearance was as much the byproduct of a shaky defense that desperately needed to be revamped.
And that's precisely what GM Brian Gutekunst did this offseason.
Rodgers had a QBR of 56.8 last season, the lowest of his storied tenure as the Packers starter. Indecision and uncharacteristically conservative play marred his season. He only tossed two picks but was sacked 49 times, the most since 2012 when he led the league with 51 sacks. Despite Rodgers' relatively down year, Green Bay finished 7th in Football Outsiders' offensive DVOA. The pass offense finished 12th. The rushing attack finished 3rd.
However, the Packers finished 29th in defensive DVOA. Their pass defense finished 28th. The run defense finished 23rd.
Just about everything the Packers have done personnel-wise in the early stages of the Gutekunst era has screamed "pass and stop the pass," the increasingly trendy football adage easily recognizable as an evolution of the famous "run and stop the run" tenet of the past.
Five of Green Bay's initial six selections in the 2018 and 2019 drafts combined have been defensive players, so the organization is clearly banking on Rodgers returning to form without an influx of young, high-end, skill-position talent. Big investments in the defense have been the priority.
Let's examine the Packers' defensive makeover, assess how all the new pieces fit together, and if this is the year that unit can rebound and maybe even carry the team for stretches during the regular season.
In his first draft as Green Bay's GM, Gutekunst picked corners in the first -- Jaire Alexander -- and second round -- Josh Jackson -- before selecting athletic linebacker Oren Burks in Round 3. Alexander played well for most of his rookie campaign. Jackson produced but had some low moments in Mike Pettine's man-to-man based coverage scheme. Burks struggled mightily.
Jumping ahead to this year, here are the most important new additions in Green Bay's defensive reconstruction:
- EDGE/DL Za'Darius Smith
- EDGE/DL Preston Smith
- S Adrian Amos
- First-round S Darnell Savage
- First-round EDGE/DL Rashan Gary
The Amos acquisition is probably flying under the radar in terms of its impact on the defense, and not just because he was poached from the division-rival Bears.
With him on the roster, Green Bay essentially got a gigantic upgrade at the free safety position while getting a decade younger. No one played more defensive snaps for the Packers in 2018 than 35-year-old secondary member Tramon Williams. He split time in the deep middle with the mostly ineffective Kentrell Brice who's now a member of the Buccaneers.
Amos starred as the primary free safety in Chicago last season. He set a career-high with 73 tackles, nine pass breakups, and two interceptions in his Age 25 season.
His range, ball skills, and wherewithal as a run-stopper will be hugely beneficial to the defense.
Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith are kinda/sorta the same player. And they're both really good, underrated edge rushers. Za'Darius played 66.6% of the defensive snaps in Baltimore last year and led the team with 8.5 sacks. Preston had four sacks, three batted passes, and finished with 53 total tackles -- the most in his four-year pro career -- on 80.4% of the snaps in Washington in 2018. Per Pro Football Focus, he logged a career-high 53 quarterback pressures last season.
Both are long, heavy edge rushers with the athleticism to sink in coverage if needed, an important attribute for outside rushers in Pettine's defense that's littered with creative zone blitzes, and they're strong enough to set a sturdy edge.
While Green Bay needed to get better on the edge and certainly did with the Smith duo, the team's pass rush as a whole wasn't a problem in 2018. In fact, it was a strength. The Packers finished 9th in the NFL with a 35.9% defensive pressure rate last season.
Pettine has always been capable of scheming pressure, and with more talent up front -- particularly on the outside -- Green Bay is primed to be even more efficient rushing the passer in 2019.
As for the team's household name defensive coordinator, let's take a gander at his recent history.
Mike Pettine's Defenses
Pass Defense DVOA Rank
Run Defense DVOA Rank
Total Defense DVOA Rank
Cleveland 2014 (head coach)
Cleveland 2015 (head coach)
Green Bay 2018
Clearly, things were better for Pettine right after he sailed away from the Rex Ryan-led Jets than they have been recently. But as one of the few defensive coordinators still mostly utilizing a two-gap defensive line along with using one of heaviest man-coverage schemes in football, his personnel needs are more specific than just about every other coordinator in the league. And getting the proper personnel takes time.
To give context on the roles some of the new-ish faces on defense in Green Bay will play, I've drawn from Pettine's very successful stints in Buffalo and Cleveland to provide player comparisons for this year's Packers club:
Specific Roles In Pettine's Defense
Single High FS
Primary Press Man CB
Press Man/Zone/Mixed Coverage CB
Buster Skrine/Justin Gilbert
Paul Kruger/Jabaal Sheard
Green Bay 2019
Josh Jackson/Kevin King
Za'Darius Smith/Preston Smith/Kyler Fackrell/Rashan Gary
As for the young players in the secondary, Savage was born to play robber in Pettine's system. He has sub 4.40 speed, plus instincts, and is a tenacious hitter. The strong safety "robber" gets to freelance at the intermediate portions of the field after a two-deep safety look rotates to a single high safety look pre-snap or right as the quarterback gets the football.
Alexander is a twitchy, aggressive press man cornerback with awesome ball skills. Jackson is a zone-coverage specialist with a tremendously large catch radius and natural ball skills. Ironically, Jackson (CB1) and Alexander (CB2) were mydespite different skill sets. King's length and smooth movement ability make him a perfect candidate to switch between man and zone whenever Pettine likes.
Then there's Rashan Gary, one of the most polarizing prospects in the 2019 draft class.
I already listed him as aand, based on the glut of similar talent at outside linebacker in Green Bay, a .
Because of his athletic gifts and the fact that he's only 21 years old and doesn't turn 22 until December, Gary could eventually step into the stand-up pass rusher roles held by the Smiths. He's just raw with his hand use and is extremely unlikely to jump either of those two relatively pricey free-agent adds early in his career. Even if Gary ultimately flops in Green Bay, it's not as if the Packers will necessarily be significantly harmed because they weren't placing him in a full-time spot right away.
Sheard, now 30, had productive stops in New England and Indianapolis after his strong seasons with Pettine in Cleveland and is set to hit free agency after the 2019 campaign. He'd be someone the Packers could potentially look to sign to a cheap-ish, multi-year deal as more "Smith insurance" next offseason.
The Packers felt the need to continue to rebuild the defense, and Gutekunst was aggressive in his pursuit of ideal Pettine pieces this offseason. With Amos in the fold, Alexander and Jackson in Year 2, King in Year 3, and the two Smiths on the outside, this is the year for Green Bay's defense to start to hold up its end of the bargain en route to the Packers being a more balanced team than a season ago.