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Who Will Replace Pettine as Packers’ Defensive Coordinator?

Could he go with a familiar face? How about raiding a rival? Promote from within? Or how about the college ranks? And what scheme?
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – Dismissing a coordinator is the easy part. Replacing one is the bigger challenge.

Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur promoted Maurice Drayton to replace Shawn Mennenga on special teams. Now, he’s got to replace Mike Pettine, who he decided not to retain on Friday.

Given it took LaFleur almost a week to make the decision on a man he’d worked alongside for two seasons, it stands to reason an extensive search is coming.

It, obviously, will be a hugely important hire. The Packers got to back-to-back NFC Championship Games, only to see Pettine’s defense wilt in the big moment. In 2019 against San Francisco, running back Raheem Mostert torched the Packers for 220 rushing yards and four touchdowns. In 2020 against Tampa Bay, Green Bay’s third-down defense was torched early and Tom Brady fired a 39-yard touchdown pass at the end of the first half to send the Packers shell-shocked into the locker room.

“You know someone had to go,” a source said. “You can’t let (Tom) Brady just stand there for 4, 5, 6 seconds.”

With the Packers leading the NFL in scoring, a better defense could be the Packers’ Super Bowl ticket.

From an outside perspective, there will be consternation on whether LaFleur should retain a 3-4 defense or move to a 4-3. That question is largely irrelevant in today’s NFL, when teams essentially run 4-2-5 nickel packages on two-thirds of the snaps.

If he had a strong thought one way or the other, LaFleur could go internal in either case.

Jerry Gray was hired this past offseason to run the secondary. Gray was Buffalo’s defensive coordinator from 2001 through 2005 and Tennessee’s defensive coordinator from 2011 through 2013. In those eight seasons, his unit finished in the top 10 in scoring defense three times but in the bottom 10 four times. He ran 4-3 schemes with both teams. A four-time Pro Bowl cornerback, Gray spent the 2014 through 2019 seasons as Mike Zimmer’s defensive gbacks coach in Minnesota.

Mike Smith was thought to be a candidate to become Kansas City’s defensive coordinator in 2019. When he didn’t get the job, he joined Pettine – for whom he played under with the New York Jets – as outside linebackers coach the past two seasons. Smith would allow the Packers to employ some of the same general principles, which might be important if there are no offseason practices due to COVID, but with a fresh voice.

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One logical replacement might have been former Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, who was LaFleur’s boss in Atlanta in 2015 and 2016. Fired by the Falcons this season, Quinn was hired by Mike McCarthy to run the Dallas Cowboys’ defense.

“He would have been a great hire,” a source said.

Another logical replacement might have been Dean Pees, who was Tennessee’s defensive coordinator in 2018 (when LaFleur was offensive coordinator) and 2019. He enjoyed a year of retirement in 2020 but was hired to run Atlanta’s defense under new coach Arthur Smith.

The Los Angeles Rams just hired Raheem Morris to run their defense, taking another quality candidate off the market.

Speaking of the Rams, when LaFleur was their offensive coordinator in 2017, venerable Wade Phillips was the defensive coordinator. The son of former NFL head coach Bum Phillips, Wade Phillips would keep a 3-4 scheme. He’s been a head coach or defensive coordinator for 40 seasons. He’ll turn 74 in June.

And continuing to speak of the Rams, safeties coach Ejiro Evero has been spent four season with Los Angeles, including 2017 with LaFleur. In 2016, he was the defensive quality control coach under Dom Capers in Green Bay.

LaFleur could try to steal from the defense that vexed his offense in Week 6 and again in the NFC Championship Game. Buccaneers defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers was Todd Bowles’ defensive coordinator for the Jets from 2015 through 2018. In 2015, the Jets went 10-6 and finished fourth in total defense and ninth in scoring. His run defenses were a strength.

Buccaneers inside linebackers coach Mike Caldwell also has spent five seasons working under Bowles and has a history of strong run defenses. He was an 11-year NFL veteran.

In a change made last year, teams can no longer block position coaches from interviewing for coordinator positions.

A wild card could be University of Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard. Leonhard intercepted 14 passes in 10 NFL seasons. He played under Pettine for about half of his career so wouldn’t have to blow up the defensive system but would provide a fresh vision to lead it. He’s built a series of powerful defenses since taking over the Badgers’ defense in 2017. Wisconsin ranks third nationally in points allowed and second in takeaways during that span.