GREEN BAY, Wis. – First came the three high-priced veteran free agents. Then came the two first-round draft picks.
Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst brought in all five for one reason: to bolster a defense that ranked 22nd in the NFL last season in Mike Pettine’s first year as coordinator.
“I told Gutey that it’s apparent he doesn’t think we’re very good coaches,” Pettine joked this offseason as he prepared for his second go around. “He needed to load the room up with some talent.”
No, Gutekunst just didn’t want to have to rely solely on Aaron Rodgers.
For the first time since perhaps 2010, their last Super Bowl season, the Packers might have a defense to rival their offensive potential. That season marked the last time the Packers ranked in the top 10 on both sides of the ball. Their defense (which finished fifth) actually outranked their offense (ninth).
Even with all the newcomers -- from free agents Adrian Amos, Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith to first-round picks Rashan Gary and Darnell Savage Jr. -- the Packers' defense should enter the season a few steps ahead of the offense even with a healthy Rodgers. That's because Rodgers & Co. could still be trying to master the 100 level courses of new coach Matt LaFleur’s offense, while the defense has advanced to Pettine’s graduate-level courses.
“We better be ahead of them,” fourth-year inside linebacker Blake Martinez said after he picked off Rodgers during Thursday’s opening practice of training camp.
If that holds true when the Sept. 5 opener at Chicago rolls around, the Packers’ defense could be charged with becoming the identity of this team while LaFleur and Rodgers work through the inevitable issues that will arise in a new playcaller-quarterback relationship.
“I think it’s huge right now because like what Blake was saying, this is our second year in the defense,” said defensive end Dean Lowry, who signed a three-year, $20.325 million contract extension this week. “Last year we were just kind of getting lined up, but right now it’s about playing fast and physical.”
When practiced opened Thursday, the Packers lined up with Lowry, Kenny Clark and Montravius Adams on the defensive line; Martinez and Oren Burks at inside linebacker; the Smiths at outside linebacker; Jaire Alexander and Kevin King at cornerback; and Amos and Raven Greene at safety. Eventually, Savage will move in next to Greene as soon as Savage is recovered from having his wisdom teeth moved. Gary, the 12th pick in the draft, almost certainly will have a major role on third downs along with last year’s team sack leader, Kyler Fackrell. So could defensive backs Tramon Williams, Josh Jackson and Josh Jones.
Since the start of last season, the Packers have moved on from outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry; defensive linemen Mike Daniels and Muhammad Wilkerson; safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Kentrell Brice. All were starters to open last season.
“I think the way Mike Pettine wants to play, and what we want to do on defense a little bit, you’re going to see maybe a little different look at times than what we were in the past,” Gutekunst said.
So where does the second-year GM think the Packers have improved the most on defense?
“Quite frankly, pretty much everywhere,” he said.
If there’s one area where the changes must bear fruit, it’s in the takeaway department. The Packers forced just 15 turnovers last season, including just seven interceptions (fewer than only one team, the 49ers with two).
That’s what made Martinez’s interception of Rodgers -- and another two plays later by Fackrell off backup Tim Boyle -- stand out so much on Thursday.
“Taking the ball away is really important,” Rodgers said. “Our best defenses over the years were in the 30s -- low 30s, mid-30s, high 30s -- as far as takeaways. That's going to be important for us, especially early as we're finding our rhythm on offense in a new system. But it looks a lot different. I think they are playing faster. I think they played fast today.
"They're in their second year with Coach Pettine. I think Blake is very comfortable as kind of the quarterback of the defense. We've brought in a lot of maturity in that group, keeping Tramon around, adding Adrian Amos and the Smiths. It's just a different feel on that side of the ball. I feel like there's a little more juice."