Packers' defense ready to take leap forward

Group in second year under Pettine
Morgan Rode
Sports Editor

GREEN BAY — While the Packers’ defense has a handful of new faces in the starting lineup, the group expects a big season as it enters year two under defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.

For much of the Packers’ offseason and then into the preseason, the defense actually was outplaying the offense, something that hasn’t happened in Green Bay in years.

“We expect them to go out and compete on every snap and give their best effort,” said coach Matt LaFleur on what he expects out of the defense. “We feel like we have a complete football team and that’s what we expect out of those guys. But it all starts with the effort, the preparation…”

The defense’s initial depth chart heading into week one showed seven players starting that gained experience under Pettine in 2018. Rookie safety Darnell Savage, and free agent pickups Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith (outside linebackers) and Adrian Amos (safety) are the new faces on that side of the ball.

“I think it’s high,” said linebacker Blake Martinez, on the potential the defense has. “It’s something we’ve been talking about throughout preseason and just kind of harping on that we can be special. It’s just kind of working every single day to get there because it’s one thing to talk about it, but it’s another thing to go out there and do it.”

Martinez led the Packers in tackles last season and will head Pettine’s unit again this fall.

With fellow inside linebacker Oren Burks working through an injury, that group’s depth will be tested early on. Rookie Ty Summers showed glimpses of promise during the preseason, while James Crawford got some experience last year.

A group on defense that the Packers desperately are looking for improvement from is the pass rushers. The Smiths will be asked to fill that void after they each signed four-year deals.

Kyler Fackrell, the team’s leader in sacks in 2018, and first-round pick Rashan Gary are listed as backups at outside linebacker to the Smiths, but don’t be surprised if Pettine gets creative and gets all four of those players on the field at the same time throughout games.

Kenny Clark anchors the defensive line — he tied for the third most tackles and had the second most sacks last year. Green Bay re-signed Dean Lowry, while Montravius Adams looks primed for a breakout season after a strong offseason.

The Packers also have some depth on the line with Fadol Brown and Tyler Lancaster back from last year’s defense and the addition of rookie Kingsley Keke, another player that’s thrived in Pettine’s system.

A better pass rush will also relieve some of the stress that’s been shouldered by the secondary over the past several seasons.

That group will be led by corner Jaire Alexander, who put together a promising rookie season and looked even better leading up to the regular season.

Kevin King is another solid cornerback, but has been plagued by injuries since being drafted. He said he will play week one after dealing with a hamstring injury.

The cornerback room is filled out by veteran Tramon Williams and a host of young guys ready to make a mark.

Tony Brown and Josh Jackson both gained valuable experience last year, while rookies Chandon Sullivan and Ka’dar Hollman played their way onto the initial 53-man roster.

The reliable Amos and rookie Savage will serve as the last line of defense, helping over the top on passing downs and crashing toward the line of scrimmage to slow the run game.

Expect Raven Greene to see plenty of time on the field, while Will Redmond serves as depth to start the year.

The defense’s first challenge will be trying to stop Bears’ dual-threat quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.

“I would just say different blitzes or different things that we might show him,” said Lowry on how the defense would try and slow Trubisky. “Our thing is always to try and be unpredictable, so that’s kind of our thing going in and we want to show him different looks. But they are also a great o-line up front too. They’re a veteran o-line so it’s always kind of a back-and-forth game.”

Chicago’s defense was the identity of the team last year, with the offense finishing in the bottom half of the league.

So Green Bay’s defense will be tasked with holding the opposition in check. Should they keep Aaron Rodgers and the offense within striking distance, the Packers will have a chance to steal a big road win to open the season.