Green Bay Packers

Joe Barry's Defensive Scheme Is Starting To Click

Photo Credit: Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY NETWORK

The Green Bay Packers finally exorcised some demons in Santa Clara with a win over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night. Green Bay entered a hostile road environment where they’d experienced two humiliating losses recently, down their two best offensive linemen and sporting an uninspiring defense.

Poor officiating, a typically dominant San Francisco defensive front, and one of the league’s best coaches couldn’t stop the heroics of Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams, and Mason Crosby, who pulled off the 37-second miracle. Matt LaFleur’s crew left with a signature win over an NFC contender.

Lost in the glory of the win is how good the Packers’ defense played against a high-powered offense. Joe Barry’s unit shrugged off the first two weeks of the season and the ghost of Mike Pettine to deliver a performance worth getting excited about. Barry’s scheme is starting to click, letting the Green Bay defenders play their best ball.

Defensive communication is one of those many intangibles thrown around, but what does it mean? When the Packers hired Barry, they maintained the rest of their defensive coaching staff and their best defensive players. What changed was the philosophy and terminology at the core of the Fangio system. Anyone who has picked up a new job has dealt with learning the relevant jargon. In the NFL, schemes need to evolve or die while also disguising intent from opponents. It’s like learning a whole new language.

That is how Pro Bowl linebacker Joe Schobert described the process. After spending time with the Cleveland Browns, a team lacking coaching continuity until recently, and seeing two different schemes in Jacksonville, Schobert said, “I’ve played 3-4, 4-3 in college and the NFL. I’ve always been in one of those defenses and, once you get to a certain point, they’re all the same. It’s just a matter of learning the verbiage and language to communicate on the field effectively. And this is the fifth new language I’ve had to learn.”

And this was before he was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

We saw not only poor individual play by Green Bay’s defensive players against the New Orleans Saints but massive gaps in communication: lack of clear assignment, players out of position, etc. These issues continued into the first half of the Detroit Lions game, but then the Packers forced a second-half shutout.

Against the 49ers, we saw new life against an excellent defense. Sure, Jimmy Garoppolo isn’t the most frightening quarterback in the league. However, with an excellent offensive line, an arsenal of weapons, and one of the NFL’s most outstanding offensive minds calling the shots, the 49ers aren’t exactly the Lions.

The Packers’ defense played with a hunger and confidence we hadn’t seen this season. We saw more of the pre-snap motion to confuse the 49ers’ offense, just like how the Green Bay’s offense operates. Even with questionable penalties, the Packers never stopped playing physical football.

Individual members of the defense played their best games of the season, and some players looked better than they had in a long time. Preston Smith was a wrecking ball of destruction with four tackles (three solo) and a sack. Amazing what he can do when not covering wide receivers. Kenny Clark was a menace, tearing through All-Pro center Alex Mack like nothing and elevating the play of the entire defensive line.

Speaking of the defensive line, Tyler Lancaster, after two weeks as one of the lowest-graded Packers defenders, had an excellent game and thrived in his job as a run-stopper, even flashing a bit at times as a rusher. The Niners had 67 yards on 21 carries, a far cry from the run defense of the past.

Jaire Alexander gave up more catches than we’re used to seeing, but he had an incredible, game-altering interception. In his first time in the spotlight, Eric Stokes showed he’s more than just a speed guy; he played hungrily. De’Vondre Campbell is emerging as a defensive leader and one of the best tacklers on the unit.

And all of these fantastic individual performances start at the top. Barry’s scheme is differentiating itself from Pettine’s, and the results are beginning to show. Most of the starters didn’t play in the preseason and needed the extra time to get used to the nuances of the new scheme. Barry was praised all offseason for the energy he brings to the defense, and we finally saw it on Sunday night.

It’s only Week 3, and it’s easy to overreact to one game. Green Bay’s best defense will always be their offense. A two-score lead forces opponents to get one-dimensional and more prone to mistakes. But the Packers’ defense went on the road, in prime time, against a true contender and came out on top. That’s worth celebrating.

The Packers’ defense is improving every week, a pleasing trend that should continue as defensive communication becomes second nature.

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