GREEN BAY, Wis. -- One overriding feeling swept through the defensive side of the Green Bay Packers locker room during the final month of the season -- that no matter how the season ended, it was just the beginning for them.
It was contingent, however, on one thing: Mike Pettine needed to remain as defensive coordinator.
No one really wanted to start over with a third defensive coordinator in as many seasons, especially after the strides that were made in Pettine’s first season, but they knew that possibility existed because of the coaching change.
That’s no longer a worry.
New head coach Matt LaFleur intends to keep Pettine on in his current role. Sources told ESPN shortly after LaFleur’s hiring on Monday evening that keeping Pettine was part of his plan, and a separate source on Tuesday said that is expected to happen.
In addition, Pettine plans to retain Jerry Montgomery, who is highly regarded for his work with Kenny Clark, among other defensive linemen last season. There also could be opportunities for Joe Whitt (defensive passing game coordinator), Patrick Graham (defensive run game coordinator), Jason Simmons (cornerbacks coach) and Scott McCurley (defensive assistant/linebackers coach) to remain on board. All are under contract for next season. Titles and positions, however, could change depending on how LaFleur wants to structure the staff.
According to two members of the defense last season who spoke with ESPN on Tuesday, they considered that news to be positive.
"Makes sense," one player said Tuesday of keeping Pettine. "The defense wasn’t the problem."
LaFleur was hired in large part for his background with two of the most revered young offensive coaches -- Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan -- but it was a bonus that he was willing to retain Pettine. Although LaFleur and Pettine have never worked together, LaFleur’s brother, Mike, was on Pettine’s staff when he was the Browns head coach. Also, Pettine and LaFleur share the same agent, Trace Armstrong, who likely helped facilitate the transition.
Armstrong also represents Joe Philbin, the Packers' offensive coordinator who served as interim head coach after Mike McCarthy was fired. According to a source, LaFleur planned to talk to Philbin, but Philbin is also expected to have other opportunities in the NFL.
Another source said McCarthy’s former assistant coaches were told they would meet with LaFleur on Monday morning. The Packers will formally introduce LaFleur on Wednesday.
While LaFleur puts together his offensive staff -- which could include his brother, who now is the 49ers' receivers coach/passing game coordinator under Shanahan -- Pettine can continue where he left off last season.
In Pettine’s first year, the defensive made the modest jump from 22nd to 18th in the league in yards and from 26th to 22nd in points allowed. It did so despite an inordinate number of injuries; by season’s end it had lost all three starting defensive linemen (Clark, Mike Daniels and Muhammad Wilkerson) and started the season finale with only three preferred starters (and one of them, cornerback Tramon Williams, was playing out of position at safety). The Packers used 32 different defensive players, two more than they have in at least any of the past six seasons and eight more than they used during the 2014 season.
"There were a lot of things that went against us this year with a ton of injuries, a ton of new guys," outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell, who led the team with 10.5 sacks, said after the season. "I think the way that he was able to still keep us playing pretty well, I think he did a great job. Yeah, it definitely helps with consistency to have the same guy back."
In return, Pettine will have to devise ways to create more turnovers. One thing about Dom Capers’ defenses is they took the ball away. No one had more interceptions than the Packers’ 176 from 2009-17 under Capers. Last year, only one team had fewer than the Packers’ nine interceptions.
"You’re right, they do need to go up," said Alexander, who had one interception as a rookie. "For sure. But it’s a team effort, so I mean it works both ways."
And having Pettine back to make it work should help.