Mike Pettine is My Kind of Guy

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Updated: June 25, 2013
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Yesterday, the Buffalo Bills Official Web Site posted the first part of a sit-down interview with Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. The video is part of a series of interviews with Bills’ decision-making types, which have given excellent insight into their philosophies and outlook on the upcoming season (shout out to Chris Brown and John Murphy). Even though only half of the interview has been posted at the time of me writing this, I have already seen enough to be thoroughly excited about a Bills defense led by Coach Pettine.

It’s considerably more fun to focus on players rather than coaches when talking yourself into a playoff run for the upcoming season. And there’s a good reason for that: it’s much easier to evaluate the talents of the players performing on the field rather than the coaches who spend the week preparing them (although a good portion of national sports media outlets choose to skip both sides and just yell at each other about… whatever they yell about). But Pettine’s philosophy and general demeanor is so vastly different from the previous few defensive coordinators that it’s impossible to ignore.

Part of what makes Pettine intriguing is pretty obvious: he’s a tough dude. He’s that football coach you remember in Pop Warner that made you run sprints for your mistakes, didn’t take lip from anybody, and probably went home at night and ate tree bark jerky washed down with a twelve-pack of ‘doesn’t matter’. My trusted colleague Topher recently posted the first of his compilations of Pettine on Hard Knocks during his days with the Jets. Although the clear highlight was him and Rex Ryan concocting a player fight to knock some aggression into the aggression-less Vernon Gholston, there is another quote in the video that displays Pettine’s attitude perfectly. In a room of Jets defenders after a poor performance during training camp, he says:

“Everybody asks how do you get guys that play so hard, how do you get guys that know what they’re doing? It’s easy. We find ‘em, and we cut the rest of ‘em.”

Clearly, some of that is coachspeak. Mario Williams could eat Funions every day until September 8th’s home opener and he’s probably still finding his way onto the roster. But it’s an attitude that helped lead the Jets to four consecutive Top-10 rated defenses (using a system of defensive ranking that Pettine thinks is rubbish, according to his sit-down interview). In this interview he says that his defense will never be dirty, but he wants to knock people down and not help them up.

I wrote an article immediately following the Pettine hire that took some guesses as far as what the Bills defense could look like after he whips it into shape. Now some of these seem to be in alignment with the impressions this defensive coaching staff have given so far (they clearly want to attack, Aaron Williams moved to safety, Mario Williams could be playing anywhere). But one thing I focused on heavily in this article was the 46 defense, a speciality of the Ryan family and their students. Now it’s true that the 46 defense requires a hefty amount of pressure through blitzes, but its clear that calling Pettine’s future defense a 46 (or a 3-4 or 4-3) would be a mistake.

Throughout the whole interview with John Murphy, Pettine explained that one of the most important components of his defensive philosophy was to maintain versatility. Much in the way offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett has preached to reporters, Pettine wants the best eleven guys in a certain situation to play in his defense. Traditional positions and packages are out the window. He wants there to be speed and discipline on the field, and if that means there needs to be four safeties or five linebackers, so be it. This isn’t a game of Madden, he can put whoever he wants on the field.

Pettine also had an interesting take on blitzing and attacking with your defense that made complete sense but you don’t hear coaches say a lot. When Murphy asked Pettine about whether he looks at sack numbers or sets a goal for a certain amount of sacks for a season he says:

“Never have. And I think what’s happened with the defenses, and I don’t know statistically or can tell you which years, but I’ve never been one to really consider high sack totals a positive stat… Sacks, to me, have always been a little bit elusive if you’re a pressure defense because the ball tends to come out a little sooner. We’ve actually timed it, gone to the tape and timed it, and have always felt the ball came out on average much quicker against us than it did against a lot of other teams. Just because of the perceived threat of the pressure the other teams came into the game knowing that the quarterback is going to get hit… we need to make it our plan to get it out quick… To me what’s more important is how much did we affect the quarterback.”

In my earlier piece describing Coach Pettine’s defensive philosophies, I made it known that the Jets were able to get away with lots of blitzing and pressure because they had two Pro Bowl-level cornerbacks for much of his stay there. That’s what I believed, that cornerback play allowed the Jets defense to take chances with applying pressure. I went a step further to think aloud that the Bills needed two shutdown corners to be able to run the system that Pettine desired to. But maybe that’s not true at all.

It’s possible, probable even, that everything is going to start up front on the defense, and that having shutdown corners is a luxury rather than a necessity. With opposing quarterbacks aware that pressure is going to come from all angles, the ball comes out quicker, and inevitably wide receivers have less time to separate from cornerbacks that may be a weakness in the defense (hypothetically, Justin Rogers). This might explain why the Bills drafted Kiko Alonso or Jonathan Meeks rather a high-rated cornerback at the time. When you have several weaknesses in the roster (and the defense certainly did at the time), any team is going to prioritize. And the Bills must have thought that they might be able to get away with a lack of cornerback depth, but there’s no way they’d survive without a strong Front 7.

So far, I’m in on Pettine, I’m in on the idea that this Buffalo Bills defense is going to be Top 10 next season (no matter which ranking system you use to determine it). And if he keeps talking the way he is right now, I’ll be excited to dedicate another two columns about him.