Aaron Rodgers said earlier this off-season that the Green Bay Packers’ offense might struggle against the ascending defense in training camp. On Monday, the first practice in shoulder pads, it seemed like Rodgers was correct.
While the first-team offense looked like the victors after the first week of camp, the defense came alive with blazing speed and technique to start Week 2. The Packers’ defense has been praised across the league following their strong finish last season and significant off-season investments. As we enter August, the defense looks primed to break out. But it’s easy to look good in shorts. I do it all the time. Can the defense keep this momentum rolling into the regular season?
Swapping coordinators is always a process as players adjust to the new playbooks and verbiage, and the new coordinator adjusts to their personnel. Joe Barry’s first year in Green Bay saw some high highs and low lows, but everything coalesced by the playoffs. Sure, the Packers lost in heartbreaking fashion again. But the defense was strong against a high-powered San Francisco 49ers attack.
Entering Year 2, Barry’s scheme should be more polished and cohesive. The veterans have experience in the system and understand the terminology and how the plays build off each other. They also can use that experience to catch the rookies and new acquisitions up to speed quickly. There shouldn’t need to be a learning period like the one last season.
The Packers invested heavily in the defense in the past few seasons. But those picks hadn’t led up to an elite unit. Since 2012, 11 of Green Bay’s 12 first-round picks have been on the defensive side of the ball. But selections such as Nick Perry, Datone Jones, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and Damarious Randall never laid the cornerstone to a good defense the way the team hoped.
While Gutekunst seemed to turn things around with Jaire Alexander, Rashan Gary, Darnell Savage, and Eric Stokes, plenty of his defenders haven’t worked out. But, for the most part, the top talent finally appears to be as advertised.
Alexander is one of the league’s best corners. Even after missing most of the 2021 season, he came back and played a not-insignificant role against the 49ers and appears to be back at full strength. We don’t get many reports of Alexander in training camp simply because no one wants to throw in his direction. The man is an island.
Rashan Gary has reportedly been a terror to start training camp and would probably be close to double-digit sacks if he could hit the quarterback. Gary appears to be the player the Packers envisioned when they gambled on his otherworldly athletic traits in 2019. Described as one of the hardest-working and most passionate defenders in the locker room, Gary is poised for a huge year.
Savage took a step back in 2021 as he adjusted to Barry’s scheme, but the Packers showed their belief in the young safety by picking up his fifth-year option. This is a big year for Savage, but if he takes that next step, he and Adrian Amos can be one of the league’s best safety duos.
The Packers threw Stokes into the fire early in his career, practicing daily against Rodgers and Davante Adams and starting when injuries crept their way through the cornerback room. He was one of the best rookie defenders in the league, and the Packers expect big things in Year 2.
Gutekunst also got a pair of Georgia Bulldogs to give Barry the necessary personnel to get the job done. Quay Walker and Devonte Wyatt have the luxury of not needing to be the No. 1 at their respective positions. They’ll get the opportunity to learn from wise veterans while getting worked into the defense. The Packers rarely invest that early in off-ball linebackers or interior defensive linemen, showing a change in philosophy to better suit Barry’s needs.
Both inside linebacker and the interior defensive line, long neglected by Green Bay’s front office, finally have elite talent and depth. De’Vondre Campbell remade his career and the expectations for inside linebackers in Green Bay. Meanwhile, Kenny Clark finally has help with the deepest group of fellow linemen he’s ever worked with. What were once liabilities in Green Bay might finally be strengths.
Talent alone should be enough to make this a top-10 defense. We saw many outstanding individual performances last season, and the goal this year should be to turn those into cohesive performances for the defense as a whole.
So far, the early returns this season are highly promising. The defense finally looks fast, decisive, and fearsome. But it’s still early August. We’ve crowned the defense as “finally rebuilt” multiple times in the past. We’ve also been burned for it before.
The players know they need to put this type of consistently good performance up each week during the regular season —and ideally deep into the playoffs. Rasul Douglas told reporters on Monday, “At the end of the day, we have to put it out there.” The defense knows the expectations, and looking cool in shorts isn’t enough.
Thankfully, the defense has everything it needs to succeed. Barring a massive amount of injuries, Barry and the defense have no excuse not to be an elite unit. We’ve seen highly encouraging, but we play the games for a reason.