So if improvement isn’t going to come from a major overhaul of X’s and O’s, it’ll come from the personnel, and Pettine sees significant strides being made at several spots, starting with last year’s first two draft picks.
Outside linebacker Rashan Gary is in line for a much larger role behind, or perhaps alongside, Za’Darius and Preston Smith. In reviewing last year’s film, Pettine felt one of Gary’s strengths was setting the edge in the run game. He also believes Gary can rush the passer from an interior position, much like Za’Darius Smith did late in the year.
Those attributes could take some of the workload off the Smiths, and keep everyone fresher for the long haul, as Gary’s game continues to grow.
“I do think at times Preston and ‘Z’ probably played a little too much, and we do want to take some off their plate,” Pettine said. “Rashan is certainly built to handle giving those guys a break.”
Meanwhile, last year’s other first-round pick, safety Darnell Savage, played considerably more than Gary as a rookie, and Pettine saw him steadily make both the physical and mental adjustment to the speed of the game.
Savage also learned from some “rookie hiccups,” and Pettine is counting on him having a stronger presence next to veteran safety Adrian Amos in his second year.
“I think the sky’s the limit for Darnell,” Pettine said. “He has big expectations of himself and those match the expectations we have for him.”
Also, 2019 sixth-round defensive lineman Kingsley Keke came in “very raw” but flashed positive signs late in the year. Much like Gary with the Smiths, Pettine sees Keke expanding the rotation up front and easing some of the burden on Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry and Tyler Lancaster.
Last but not least, while the Packers are replacing the linebacker in the center of it all, Blake Martinez, they’re doing so with Christian Kirksey, who’s very familiar with Pettine’s system from their time together in Cleveland (2014-15).
Kirksey has a “head start” not many players get when joining a new team, which will prove beneficial with the offseason program limited to virtual meetings due to the pandemic.
“It is a good feeling to know given our circumstances, that we’re not going to have a ton of on the field time, the unit that we’re going to trot out there on Day 1 is going to be guys that are all very experienced in the system,” Pettine said.
Except for Kirksey, that experience also includes what happened in San Francisco. Using it the right way will chart the defense’s next course.
“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.”