LaFleur ‘Still Working Through’ Fate of Defensive Staff

Bill Huber

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur did not say he was going to fire defensive coordinator Mike Pettine after Sunday’s debacle in the NFC Championship Game.

But he wouldn’t commit to keeping him, either.

“We’re still working through everything right now,” LaFleur said on Wednesday, a few days after his defense was routed 37-20 by the 49ers. “Just trying to evaluate everything. I think our defense did a lot of great things [during the regular season]. Obviously, the last game was very disappointing in terms of our performance. It just wasn’t good enough. Especially when you get to a championship game like that and you know what’s at stake. Just all across the board. It wasn’t just the defense. Our offense and special teams weren’t up to par, as well.”

Indeed, it was a good season for Pettine in Year 2 as coordinator, thanks in part to a bold series of personnel moves. General manager Brian Gutekunst made an enormous investment in the defense this past offseason. At outside linebacker, he signed Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith to contracts worth a combined $116 million and used his first first-round pick on Rashan Gary. At safety, he signed Adrian Amos and used the second of his first-round picks on Darnell Savage.

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The signings paid immediate dividends. Green Bay finished ninth in the league with 19.6 points allowed per game, its best performance since the 2010 Super Bowl season, and just 0.2 points per game behind eighth-ranked San Francisco. In 2018, Pettine’s first year as coordinator, Green Bay ranked 25th with 25.0 points per game. Against the pass, Green Bay finished sixth in opponent passer rating at 81.1 compared to a 28th-ranked 100.9 in 2018.

Video: Defenseless Packers

However, with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake, the defense was torched by the 49ers. San Francisco raced to a 27-0 halftime lead. Raheem Mostert rushed for 220 yards – the second-most rushing yards by a player in NFL history – and four touchdowns. The 49ers’ running game was so dominant that Kyle Shanahan elected to throw the ball only eight times. Pettine’s defense was beaten physically and mentally, continually outflanked in a horrendous performance.

“I think it was a combination of a lot of things,” LaFleur said. “I think you have to give San Francisco credit. They definitely outcoached us. I just didn’t feel like we played with the same urgency, the same tenacity, the same toughness. We didn’t set the edge the same as we had been earlier this season. It’s disappointing, because it’s not like we didn’t know what they were going to try to do. We knew exactly what they were going to try to do. We knew they were going to run the football, and for them to be able to do that was extremely disappointing. I just didn’t think we played with the same effort as what I had seen earlier in the season.”

How is that possible? How, with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake, could the defense fall flat?

“Yeah, that’s a great question,” LaFleur said. “That’s something that I’m still trying to figure out right now as we speak. I mean, I don’t understand that because you’re there. You have an opportunity to go to play in a Super Bowl and for that to happen, it’s extremely bothersome. We have to look at ourselves, everybody. I’m going to look inside of myself and see why weren’t our players playing with their hair on fire. I think everybody in our organization has to do that.”

Is Pettine the right man to lead the defense as the Packers attempt to take the next step in Year 2 under LaFleur? Will there be true confidence among the players that he can find the answers for next year’s regular-season rematch, which obviously could have major playoff ramifications? Do the Packers simply not have the personnel to match up with the Niners' combination of physical blockers and fast ball-carriers? Is there a better candidate available, now that most coaching staffs are filled? LaFleur must weigh – and no doubt is weighing – those questions as he considers the makeup of next year’s coaching staff.

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