It was quite a ride for this season’s Green Bay Packers. They achieved an NFC North title, a first-round bye in the playoffs, and a trip to the NFC Championship. They did all this under first-year head coach Matt LaFleur. While the season didn’t end like they were hoping, it was still a very successful season. Now starts the journey for next season. The goal being to earn a trip to Super Bowl LV in Tampa Florida. In this article, we take a look at ways the Green Bay Packers defense can improve to help with their chances.
Ways to Improve the Green Bay Packers Defense Next Season
The Green Bay Packers defense had some highs this past season. But they also dealt with some lows. Lows that will need to be corrected going into next season.
The Green Bay Packers defense was bolstered by the arrival of free-agent signings Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith, and Adrian Amos. They also got solid production from rookie safety Darnell Savage. Savage was a first-round pick of the Packers from last spring.
But if the Packers are going to take the next step, they will need to improve. Here are some areas we believe the Green Bay Packers defense will need to improve on for next season.
Upgrading the Inside Linebacker Position
Inside linebacker Blake Martinez has been called the central nervous system of the Green Bay Packers defense. He was a tackling machine, finishing this past season with 155 tackles, 97 of them being solo. During his four year career, he totaled 512 combined tackles. Martinez did as much as he could with his smaller stature and his limited athletic ability. But for the Green Bay Packers defense, it needs more out of their inside linebacker position.
Martinez struggled to make many splash plays during his four-year career with the Packers. Along with that, he struggled shedding blocks and especially struggled to cover opposing teams’ tight ends. Many of his tackles came downfield after six to seven-yard gains by the opposing team’s offense. He is scheduled to be a free agent this off-season. It is highly likely that another team will offer him a big-money deal. But we don’t feel Martinez is a true number one inside linebacker and it would be best that the Green Bay Packers defense move on from him.
There are a couple of different ways that Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst can improve the inside linebackers position. Either find a free agent when NFL free agency opens or spend a high round draft pick on one in this year’s draft.
This past season, he notched 133 combined tackles, seven for loss, but also forced two fumbles, had two sacks, and had four interceptions. His ability to make plays would be an instant upgrade at the inside linebacker position for the Green Bay Packers defense. Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com has Schobert ranked as the 38th overall free agent
If Gutekunst decides to go the draft route, one possibility would be Oklahoma linebacker, Kenneth Murray. Murray was an explosive linebacker for the Sooners. He would add a player who has the athletic ability to cover tight ends but is strong enough to hold up against the run. The Packers would need for him to slip down to them late in the first round though.
It wasn’t long ago that they spent a third-round pick on Oren Burks. Burks was expected to be the linebacker who the Green Bay Packers defense could utilize in the passing game. Unfortunately, he has struggled with injuries and has yet to earn playing time on defense. Time is running out on him and the Packers will need to make sure they are covered.
Finding Another Starting Defensive End
The Green Bay Packers defense looks to be set at nose tackle and at one of the starting defensive end positions.
Kenny Clark has become an exceptional interior defensive lineman. He registered six sacks and caused havoc in the middle of the Packers defensive line. His play has earned him a big-money contract, that should be coming this off-season.
Dean Lowry signed a new deal prior to this season. Many believed that contract earned Mike Daniels his release. Lowry didn’t play as well as he did the season prior. But he, like Clark, is young and has flashed at times. He appears to be a lock at one of the starting defensive ends next season. He will need to prove he is worth that deal he signed though.
But the starting defensive end position opposite Lowry is a major question mark. Montravius Adams and Tyler Lancaster both held down the position at times during the season. Both also failed to play up to an NFL level. Adams, a former draft pick of the Packers, has been a major disappointment. Lancaster is an overachiever and is at best a backup. Because of the poor play from both of them, the Packers used outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith quite a bit at the position down the stretch.
The San Francisco 49ers dominated the Packers defensive front in the NFC championship. They ran at will against the Packers. The 49ers are a young team and the Packers will need to figure out a way to stop their run. It could be in the draft or free agency, but they must find a player to hold down that starting defensive end position.
Rookie Kingsley Keke has the potential to blossom into that role. But the rookie from Texas A&M is a very raw prospect. He played in 14 games this season and registered 10 combined tackles.
But if the Packers are going to shore up their defensive front, they are going to need help now. The way their run defense was gashed in the NFC Championship they can’t wait for Keke to develop.
Gary Needs to Take the Next Step
The Green Bay Packers defense added Rashan Gary with the 12th overall pick in last year’s draft. Gary has the athletic ability that most players can only dream of having. But the production hasn’t matched his ability. That is why the Packers used this season as a redshirt type season for Gary. Something we feel was a great idea.
Gary got to play in a part-time role and learned behind the Smiths, two of the best in the game. While learning, he registered 21 combined tackles and had two sacks. But next season, he will need to make the next jump in his maturation.
The Smiths logged a lot of plays this season and shouldn’t be expected to keep up that type of snap count. Along with that, Kyler Fackrell, the top backup at outside linebacker, will be a free agent this off-season. Gutekunst took a big risk selecting Gary. Now it will be up to Gary to show that he was worthy of being selected that high.
Questions About Pettine
The Packers granted defensive coordinator Mike Pettine a lot of power this season. LaFleur was urged to keep Pettine, who spent one season under former head coach Mike McCarthy. He was viewed as the “head coach of the defense”. He got to bring in his own assistants as well. But the biggest thing, Gutekunst gave him a lot of talent on that side of the ball to work with.
The results of the Green Bay Packers defense this season was at best average. They finished the season 14th against the pass and 23rd against the run. For a unit that started off the season so well, it was a very disappointing finish.
There has already but rumblings about Pettine not returning next season. Although it seems doubtful, there is a chance it could happen. Pettine wasn’t one of LaFleur’s “guys.” LaFleur could decide he wants his own man to run the defense. There are some solid ex-defensive coordinators looking for jobs right now. Two that jump out are Kris Richard and Wade Phillips. Both would bring very interesting backgrounds to the Green Bay Packers defense.
If Pettine does return, he will need to improve this defense. The Packers defense wasn’t a Super Bowl-caliber defense, something that many thought it would be. That falls squarely on Pettine’s shoulders. He might not be the man to make this defense better. If LaFleur sees it that way, there might be a new man running the Green Bay Packers defense next season.
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