Mike Pettine didn't mince words when describing the Green Bay Packers' disappointing end to the 2019 season, but the defensive coordinator expects his squad to improve upon their last outing.
"It was a tough pill to swallow," Pettine told reporters over a Zoom call Friday. "You're always remembered by your last performance. I hate for it to tarnish what we were able to accomplish during the year winning 14 games. We're not gonna let it do that and be this dark cloud hanging over us, but at the same time, it's something that we can't sweep under the carpet. We need to address it."
The Packers' 37-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game evaporated what was a relatively successful season, and the sky came crashing down quick thanks to their inability to stop the ground attack. The 49ers totaled 285 yards on the ground against the Packers and made it look easy. 49ers running back Raheem Mostert offered one of the best rushing performances in playoff history by becoming the first player to surpass 200 yards and score four touchdowns while quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo attempted just eight passes.
"I mean, it's tough to realize that we played our worst game at the worst time," lamented Pettine, who went on to praise the Niners and label them the 'elite' of the NFC. "But at the same point, we own it, we're not running away from it, we went through it in detail with the staff, we talked to the players about it -- there's no excuses being offered. I mean, we just weren't good enough in every aspect. Whether it was scheme, energy, effort, technique. ... The key thing is to learn from it so it doesn't happen again."
Pettine, who enters his third year as Packers DC in 2020, maintained his confidence in the defensive scheme. At times, the Packers' defense seemed to be their strong-point during a season in which rookie head coach Matt LaFleur implemented a new offense. While the Packers finished in the top 10 in points allowed, the defense was below average in total yards allowed and it all started with their run-stopping woes. Going back to the basics will be a point of emphasis for Pettine's defense; highlighting the importance of forcing a push at the line of scrimmage and having an aggressive mentality up front.
"We're going to get blocked," Pettine explained. "The key is not to stay blocked. And having that understanding of how to violently release off a block and the timing of it -- not to do it too soon or too late. We feel good about what we do, how we teach it, and we will certainly spend a lot of time on it. What's great is our offense has such a strong commitment to running the football that when we do get to go against them in camp that it's going to be a point of emphasis on both sides."
The Packers big free-agent signing this offseason is expected to have a big impact in stopping the run. Middle linebacker Christian Kirksey, who was once coached by Pettine in Cleveland, joins a corps that has already had big investments and accumulated great depth through the draft.
Outside linebackers Preston and Za'Darius Smith showed their ability to wreak havoc in their first seasons in Green Bay, and 2019 first-round pick Rashan Gary is sure to see more playing time on the edge, which Pettine mentioned would give the Smith duo a much-needed rest. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry and Tyler Lancaster round out the Packers defensive front, and Pettine hopes to expand Kingsley Keke's role to ease their burden as well. With a budding secondary behind them in Darnell Savage, Jaire Alexander and Kevin King, the Packers have the potential to be one of the better defenses in the NFL, and that's the expectation Pettine has for his squad as they hope to quickly erase the memory of their last game.
"It's certainly been a focal point," Pettine said. "We're not dwelling on it, but it's something we know if we want to take the next step.We were a game away, but that was a big step, and they present a big hurdle. If we want to take it, there's a lot we need to get done between now and then."