Whatever you call the Packers' defense, don't call it a weak link anymore

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Mike McCarthy doesn’t care what you call the scheme new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine brought with him to the Green Bay Packers. He’s not into labels, and it doesn’t sound like Pettine is, either.

“If you asked him if he plays a 4-3 or a 3-4,” McCarthy said, “he’d say, ‘Yes.’”

What McCarthy wants, however, is a total transformation when it comes to the state of mind on that side of the ball.

“It’s got to be a mentality,” McCarthy said last week at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. “I’m sick and tired of our defense feeling like the stepchild. I mean, how many times do you have to tell them, ‘You’re not the stepchild.’ That’s a blatant statement, and it’s not a cure-all. But it’s definitely a starting point.

“So, now, with that, you’ve got to give them the opportunity to be better.”

It began when McCarthy made a bold statement -- “The defense needs to be better than the offense” -- just days after he fired Dom Capers in January. Pettine and the revamped defensive coaching staff has had the last month-and-a-half to thoroughly review what happened last season, along with player evaluations and scheme meetings.

It will now be up to new general manager Brian Gutekunst to infuse the roster with more playmakers.

That process could start even before free agency officially opens next week.

Gutekunst wouldn’t say whether the Packers were involved in trade talks for Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters (who was dealt to the Rams), but based on his plan to aggressively look into all options even if deals can’t be made, there’s a good chance he at least kicked the tires.

They’re also likely to look into former Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, who was informed last week of his release -- a move that was made official Monday.

There’s a natural connection to the Packers because of Pettine’s tenure as the Jets' defensive coordinator (2009-12). Wilkerson, a first-round pick in 2011, played his first two seasons under Pettine.

Add that to a statement Gutekunst made last week at the combine, where he said “you have to have a dominant pass rush,” and the move could make sense.

But the defensive transformation will be about more than one player. Players came and went under Capers, yet he failed to field a top-10 defense each of the last seven years and was in the top-15 only twice.

“It was more of a mindset,” McCarthy said. “We have a great quarterback, but this is a team game. Great defenses win championships. You can always usually point to the Super Bowl and all that, but the defense that made the big play really factored in that game. Obviously, I’m aware of the offensive production, but defense, I’ve always looked at defense in the game of football, they’re a thermostat. They keep the environment consistent.

“They give you the opportunity to, because there’s days that you may not catch, throw or run it as good. Defense’s room for error, it’s in a better spot to have consistency. And obviously players, scheme, all that factors in, too. We need to be more consistent on defense. We need to do a better job against the top quarterbacks. That’s a real, to me that’s a real outlier of our top defenses.”

This may not be the massive undertaking it was when Capers was hired in 2009, when the Packers went from a 4-3 to a 3-4. Pettine’s scheme more closely resembles Capers’ 3-4-based system and uses similar blitz patterns in the nickel and dime packages.

Then-GM Ted Thompson used his first two picks on defensive players key to the 3-4: nose tackle B.J. Raji and outside linebacker Clay Matthews.

“At that time, there wasn’t as much [nickel and dime] packaging,” Gutekunst said. “Our big thing is we needed a nose. That was a big thing, because that base defense stayed on the field so much back then we felt we needed a dominant nose tackle. And then obviously the outside backers is where all your pass rush is going to come from.

“I do remember thinking there was much more of a focus on the scheme part of it, for us, getting some guys that can fit that scheme. Obviously our scheme really isn’t going to change quite a bit. Now, the way he may use it, percentages and different packages on the field may change a little bit, but the pieces I don’t know if they’re changing as significantly as they did back in 2009.”