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Sports Saturday

Mike Pettine could give Bears’ defense mentor toughness

The former Packers defensive coordinator has the experience that Bears rookie DC Sean Desai lacks. “He’s a really strategic-type guy that has a lot of different schemes that keep you off-balance as a play-caller.,” Matt Nagy said of Pettine in 2018.

Chicago Bears v Cleveland Browns
The Packers’ defense was ninth in yards allowed and tied for 13th in points allowed in 2020 under coordinator Mike Pettine (left, talking with Bears coach Marc Trestman after a preseason game in 2014). Pettine, the former head coach of the Browns, was hired by the Bears as a defensive assistant.
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Bears’ hiring of former Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to assist first-time defensive coordinator Sean Desai falls under the category of “it can’t hurt.”

It’s hard to tell what the dynamic will be like. When Brad Childress was a senior adviser under coach Matt Nagy, offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich and quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone, it seemed like a classic case of too many cooks. Before we could even figure out what exactly Childress did, he was gone.

But Pettine as a senior adviser to Desai has a lot of promise. A veteran and proven NFL defensive coordinator — with head-coaching experience — working with a rookie defensive coordinator who grew up under Vic Fangio has the makings of an effective combination. We don’t know much about Desai, except that he seems like a sharp guy who will make it work rather than feel pressure from somebody with more experience than he has looking over his shoulder.

“For us, I think it’s going to be a resource,” Desai said. “I think coach Pettine’s going to be able to help us on defense and help us on offense, from a big-picture perspective. He’s going to be able to bring in ideas, as our other coaches are going to be able to bring in ideas.

“This is going to be an open environment. Everyone’s going to know who we are and what our identity is, and if there’s things that we can balance each other off of, then I’m all for that. I think that’s a great thing for me as a first-time defensive play-caller, is to have some other perspectives in.”

Desai did not go into detail about Pettine’s role when he met the media Monday, other than to acknowledge that Pettine is on the staff.

“His title is senior defensive assistant,” Desai said. “If there’s a task I need coach Pettine to do . . . then he’ll do them for me. He’ll do them for coach [Nagy], just like anybody else. But he’ll be a defensive assistant with us.”

But the opportunity for Pettine to make an impact is there. If anything, Pettine can add a dimension of unpredictability the Bears’ defense lacked in two seasons under Chuck Pagano.

“Coach Pettine has done a great job throughout his career of being almost tendency-free,” Helfrich said in 2019.

The subject at the time was the effectiveness of the Packers’ pass rush — how the Packers under Pettine were getting more sacks out of free agents Za’Darius Smith (13½ sacks) and Preston Smith (12½) than the Bears were from Khalil Mack (8½) and Leonard Floyd (3).

Led by the Smith Brothers, the Packers had 41 sacks to the Bears’ 32 in 2019. And even when Preston Smith slumped in 2020 with four sacks, the Packers still had 41 sacks.

Pettine came up with other ways to pressure the quarterback, notably from the secondary. The Packers had 6½ sacks and 10 quarterback pressures from their secondary in 2020, with five players getting at least one sack. (The Ravens were the only other team to have five defensive backs with at least one sack.)

The Bears were nowhere near that inventive. They had zero sacks and zero quarterback pressures from their secondary in 2020 — one of only four NFL teams without one.

Fangio’s defense generally disdains exotic blitzes to get the job done. Like Lovie Smith’s cover-2, the philosophy was, ‘‘This is what we do — try and beat us.’’ That generally worked, especially at its peak. But even Fangio’s stellar 2018 defense included six sacks from the secondary. In two seasons under Pagano, the Bears had none (safety Eddie Jackson was credited with one in 2019 when Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott ran out of bounds for a loss).

The Bears’ defense lost its bite under Pagano; Pettine gives it a chance to regain it.

“I’ll say this: Coach Pettine is a really good defensive coordinator,” Nagy said in 2018. “He’s a really strategic-type guy that has a lot of different schemes that keep you off-balance as a play-caller.”

These adviser roles often are overlooked and sometimes inconsequential. But the acquisition of Pettine is intriguing. The Packers’ defensive collapses in the playoffs the last two seasons against the 49ers and Buccaneers were legitimate cause for a change. But Pettine’s 2020 defense still ranked ninth in the NFL in total yards and tied for 13th in points allowed — excluding six garbage-time touchdowns, the Packers likely would have been in the top 10 in scoring, as well.

It’s not like he lost his touch. In fact, if the Bears’ defense can survive an offseason salary-cap purge, as an adviser to a rookie defensive coordinator with a lot to work with, Pettine might be in the right spot at the right time.