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The Packers Must Fix Their Defense

Training camp battles, storylines and more from Green Bay, including some new talent for Mike Pettine's defensive scheme

WHO: Green Bay Packers

WHERE: Green Bay

WHEN: Thursday, July 26

HOW: Driving from Chicago (passed the “world’s tallest symbol of freedom” in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. A 400-foot tall flagpole, flies the American flag in front of an insurance office.)

GREEN BAY, Wis.— Josh Jackson likes to call Jaire Alexander his, “Lil Bro.” The nickname originated when the two rookie cornerbacks began rooming together during OTAs. In their hotel room, Jackson (the Packers’ second-round pick) took to body slamming Alexander (a first-rounder) when he least expected it. Like a big brother picking on his little brother, “I always whoop him,” Jackson laughed.

Alexander would say otherwise. “Let’s put it this way,” he says. “If we had a bunk bed, Josh would get the top bunk and I would get the bottom.”

On the field at the first two days of training camp, the difference in personality between Green Bay’s big brother and little brother is obvious. Alexander is high-energy, passionate and frequently yelling encouragement to teammates as he comes in and out of plays. Jackson is the opposite. He’s more laidback and mature. Instead of cheering, he quietly studies the action.

“He’s so smart when it comes to studying the game,” Alexander says. “He asks all the questions before I can even get a word out,” Alexander says.

Alexander remembers the first time he met Jackson at the NFL Scouting Combine. He joked to Jackson, who led the nation with eight interceptions last year, “Hey Josh, man, can I have some of your picks?”

Green Bay is hopeful rookie “brothers” Jaire and Josh will improve a secondary that had fallen apart from a combination of disappointing draft picks, injuries and communication issues last season. They’re also hoping 2017 second-round draft pick Kevin King, who was injured off-and-on last season, will come into his own while fully healthy. The Packers also signed veteran cornerback Tramon Williams (for his second go-round in Green Bay) and re-signed cornerback Davon House to be that veteran support to the younger guys coming up.

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Williams has taken the two young corners under his wing, using his experience playing in Cleveland and Arizona the last three seasons to provide larger context. “He has that expertise,” McCarthy said before Friday’s practice. “He’s played other places and has that knowledge, which is good for our guys because most of our guys were drafted here. They don’t know anything else.”

Green Bay’s new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is charged with turning around a defense that ranked 31st in opposing quarterback passer rating, 30th in opposing QB completion percentage, 23rd in passing defense, and 26th in points allowed last season under Dom Capers. He’s described his system as multiple, and with a disguise element, meaning certain coverages are designed to look similar but the players will do something different out of each one.

Jackson saw time at corner and nickelback during Thursday’s opening training camp practice, and says he’s enjoying the versatility of his role in Pettine’s multiple defense. “I can play different positions and move around and I think that’s why I like the defense so much,” Jackson said.

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From observing one practice, the defense seems high-energy and is incorporating more blitzing, which is exciting for guys like third-year defensive end Dean Lowry. “If you watch a lot of guys that Pettine has coached in the past, in Cleveland, in Buffalo and New York [with the Jets], all those D-lineman had success, so it’s very encouraging,” Lowry said.

The Packers bolstered the defensive line by signing Muhammad Wilkerson in the offseason, and his prior experience playing in Pettine’s system with the Jets has served the team well. “He played in that system, so he knows it very well,” Lowry said. “We’re always asking him questions about the details of the defense.”

In media availability this offseason, Pettine has said his focus is to help the guys play faster and eliminate any mental mistakes and communication issues. Following that philosophy, Pettine spent a good chunk of the first half of Thursday’s practice walking his defense through base package alignments and making sure each player knew his assignment. He didn’t run them through the play or work off the snap of the ball, but had the players work off of offensive shifts that he called.

Former Jets and Bills head coach Rex Ryan, who worked side-by-side with Pettine in New York, told ESPN’s Rob Demovsky that Pettine’s fast-paced defense makes it fun for the players, and said: “If you love the game, then these guys died and went to heaven in this system.”

Though they’re just beginning to put it all together, defensive players nod in agreement upon hearing Ryan’s hyperbolic take. “He believes in letting you play football,” Williams said. “Bottom line is, if my guy is better than your guy, he is going to let you be better than that guy. Unlike some other coaches, who might put a leash on you too much. He’s not going to put a leash on you. That’s what guys love. You want your coach to let you loose and go be that guy.”

“We’ve had one day so far,” Lowry said. “But I can tell you that as a D-lineman we are really attacking this year, so it is fun for us.”

The play of the day came from the secondary, an auspicious sign that the change may be taking hold. In his first throw in the team session, Aaron Rodgers lofted a deep pass down the right sideline to Randall Cobb. King was right there with him, and jumped up to intercept the pass.

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“OH, I DIDN’T KNOW THAT": In five seasons as an NFL coordinator, Pettine’s defenses have never ranked outside of the top 10. Will anything less then top 10 this season be a disappointment? “Most definitely,” Williams said. “I say that because whenever you have a top 10 defense, the chances of winning the Super Bowl are very, very good. We will have a top defense and Pettine is the guy to bring it here.”

STORYLINE TO WATCH: Who will prevail at backup quarterback, Brett Hundley or ex-Browns quarterback Deshone Kizer? Rodgers broke his collarbone for the second time last season—albeit after three straight years starting all 16 games—and the role can always suddenly become critical for a Super Bowl contender. Hundley began camp taking snaps with the twos.

As for injuries to keep an eye on: Starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga tore his ACL last November, and started camp on the PUP list, but head coach Mike McCarthy said before practice that Bulaga should be ready for the season opener. Linebacker Nick Perry is also on PUP with a hand injury, but McCarthy also said he should be ready for the season opener.

TOP POSITION BATTLE: The Packers have several interesting position battles to keep an eye on, including the top three cornerbacks. Will either of the rookies break into a starting role? And the receivers will be another group to keep an eye on. Beyond Randall Cobb and Davante Adams, the depth chart is wide open for a big group of receivers at camp. Geronimo Allison, Trevor Davis, and 2017 practice squad player DeAngelo Yancey return to compete with the three rookie wide receivers Green Bay drafted: J’Mon Moore (fourth round), Marquez Valdes-Scantling (fifth) and Equanimenous St. Brown (sixth). And then there’s Jake Kumerow, who has spent time on Cincinnati and New England’s practice squad. That’s seven players for what will be three or four spots. Davis made the ‘Wow play’ of day one, diving for a deep pass from Rodgers to end the team session.

OFFBEAT OBSERVATION: I’m sorry if you’re sick of the Packers riding the bikes of young fans. It might be a tired story, but it is so darn cute. I arrived at Lambeau just in time to see the players pedal over to the practice fields on the kid-sized bikes. Most of the guys have full conversations with these kids as they bike over. One player actually towed a kid in one of those kid carrier/trailer things. Receiver Randall Cobb and his kid raced past other Packers who were taking it slow on their baby bikes. One mom pointed out running back Aaron Jones to her son, who couldn’t have been more than three years old. “There’s Aaron Jones, remember he rode your bike last year?” His eyes got wide as he saw Jones pass. If I hadn’t grown up a Bears fan, I might admit that being a young Packers fan in Green Bay sounds pretty good.

PARTING THOUGHTS: New free agent signee Jimmy Graham was hard to miss. The 6’7’’ Graham seemed like the tallest guy on the field, and wore black and yellow cleats with bright green spikes. Aaron Rodgers targeted Graham several times in practice and the crowd went wild when he hit Graham on a crossing route… Clay Matthews had the quote of the day. After Rodgers and the offense failed to convert on third down, Matthews yelled loud enough for media and fans on the edge of the field to hear, “C’mon Aaron, get your offense together!”

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