For years fans of the Green Bay Packers have lamented the lack of focus management has placed on off-ball linebackers. Where other teams trot out Bobby Wagner, Eric Kendricks, Fred Warner, and Devin White, the Packers offered Blake Martinez, B.J. Goodson, Antonio Morrison, and Christian Kirksey. Green Bay’s linebackers have been torched for a seeming eternity, likely one reason the defenses are traditionally lackluster.
That didn’t seem unlikely to change this season, but defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s scheme and history with inside linebackers, along with some savvy free-agent additions, are starting to change that narrative. Green Bay’s defense is still a work in progress, especially in the red zone, but inside linebackers are trending in the right direction.
Barry was the Los Angeles Rams linebackers coach last season, and L.A. had the best defense in the league, giving up 18.5 points a game. While the defense had stars in the secondary and the pass rush, the inside linebackers weren’t household names. The Rams’ top four ILBs, Justin Hollins, Kenny Young, Micah Kiser, and Troy Reeder, are all Day 3 selections or undrafted players. Only Hollins and Reeder had PFF grades above 60. And yet, that unit got results.
Barry wasn’t the defensive coordinator in L.A., but he was the assistant head coach and linebackers coach. Of course, Barry has a strong history with the ILB position his entire football career. He played there himself in college. His first stop as a coach was his alma mater, USC. He was instrumental in getting the most of that position group with the Rams, and it looks like he’s bringing that same focus to Wisconsin.
When he accepted the job in Green Bay, his linebackers consisted of Oren Burks, Ty Summers, Krys Barnes, and Kamal Martin, who was released before the regular season. Free-agent De’Vondre Campbell joined the team in June.
We saw Barry unlock more potential in Burks this preseason, who struggled as a defensive player thus far. By focusing on Burks’ skills as a blitzer, we’ve seen him excel in certain packages. He dominated against the Texans in the preseason, and he’s shown some of that potential in the regular reason. Last Sunday, Burks lit up Joe Burrow on an impressive low tackle.
Barnes was the best ILB from last season and continues to be a productive starter. Per PFF, the former UDFA has 17 solo tackles, three assists, and a sack on the season. In a game where Matt LaFleur wanted his team playing hot, Barnes was volcanic. He demolished running back Samaje Perine on his way to sack Burrow.
Summers filled in for an injured Barnes and is still mainly a special teamer.
But while Barry is doing his best to maximize the skills of the aforementioned players, it’s the addition of Campbell that’s given Barry a weapon to utilize. It made sense to sign Campbell. He had familiarity with LaFleur, no injury history, and filled a position of need. Five weeks in, Campbell’s 1-year, $2 million contract is downright larceny.
With Za’Darius Smith and Jaire Alexander sidelined, Campbell might be one of Green Bay’s most important defenders. Campbell wears the communication headset and leads Green Bay in tackles with 35 solo and three assists. His 84.8 PFF grade earned him a spot on the PFF First-Quarter Second All-Pro team.
Even if you don’t like PFF grades, Campbell passes the eye test game after game. After a lackluster Week 1 (along with the entire team), Campbell has made a game-changing play every week.
And now the Packers brought in former Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith, another player with a LaFleur connection. With the Cowboys paying most of Smith’s salary, Barry gained a cheap and talented new weapon. Smith may struggle against the run, but he’s still an excellent coverage linebacker, and in a passing league, that’s probably more important.
Smith could even see some playing time on the edge as another Smith Bro, or at worst a Smith Cousin. With the inside linebacker position already ascending, the addition of Smith will make the group even better.
The defense still needs improvement; there is no denying that. But Barry’s unit is starting to separate itself from Pettine’s, thanks to Barry’s strong background in elevating off-ball linebacker play and the addition of savvy free agents. The Packers might not spend a ton of draft capital on the position, but they’re getting good returns on what they have.