Green Bay Packers

The Packers’ Defense Won't Dominate Until Joe Barry Adapts

Photo credit: Mark Hoffman (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel via USA TODAY Sports)

The Green Bay Packers built their 2022 roster to be dominant on defense. The team already had talent in that unit, and they used two first-round picks to select Quay Walker and Devonte Wyatt. Then they utilized cap space to sign Jarran Reed, re-sign Rasul Douglas and De’Vondre Campbell, and extend Jaire Alexander. However, the results have been uninspiring at best, and a big part of the disappointment is defensive coordinator Joe Barry. His unwillingness or inability to adjust according to the opponent has created unnecessary problems for a talented group.

Before Sunday’s game against the New England Patriots, the Packers were 19th in defensive DVOA. Then they allowed 24 points for an offense led by Bailey Zappe. The rookie fourth-round pick was under center because Mac Jones injured his ankle last week and Brian Hoyer sustained a concussion early in the game at Lambeau Field. The offense, coordinated by Matt Patricia, prioritized the run game and found plenty of success. Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson had almost five yards per carry. Zappe only had to pass the ball 15 times, completing 10 passes for 99 yards. Hoyer was 5/6 for 37 yards before going out.

Green Bay’s strategy was flawed. The lack of adjustments was as apparent as it was in Week 1 against the Minnesota Vikings, but for different reasons this time.

The Packers had multiple reasons to adjust their scheme and play more single-high, with only one safety deep and one extra body in the box. First, starter Adrian Amos went down with a concussion and couldn’t play for almost three quarters. Rudy Ford, brought in to be a special teamer, was the immediate replacement. Moreover, Zappe was making his NFL debut, and New England’s plan was clearly to take the ball out of his hands.

Adding those factors, there was no justification for maintaining the initial strategy of playing two safeties deep. After a good first half by the defense, giving up just three points – in the first drive, still led by Hoyer – the defense had no answers to a run-heavier approach in the second half. They gave up 14 points. One of the touchdown drives had only a single passing play. When Barry decided to play more aggressively, with single-high and a higher usage of man coverage, the Patriots’ offense couldn’t advance. Fortunately, the Packers scored 10 unanswered points to win the game.

The lack of adjustments had already been a problem three weeks ago when the Packers lost to the Vikings to start the season. Justin Jefferson had an amazing game, one he hasn’t been able to replicate since. Why? Because every other opponent, especially the Philadelphia Eagles with Darius Slay, has had a better plan to stop him. Barry was unwilling to play more man coverage or to send extra bodies to pressure Kirk Cousins. The Packers didn’t use a single blitz until Week 3.

And it’s not like the Packers didn’t have the horses to be more multiple or aggressive schematically. When Jaire Alexander plays, the Packers can stress the secondary and its five good starters to send an extra player to rush the passer. Alexander and Eric Stokes are also well suited to man coverage, even if Douglas is better in zone. Against the Patriots, the Packers could also have used more bodies in the box and forced Zappe to throw, but Green Bay played the same way they would have if starter Jones were healthy.

The best game the Packers’ defense played so far was against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 3. Obviously, the Bucs missed multiple important starters, including their three best wide receivers. But the Packers knew how to take advantage of the situation, using blitzes to pressure Tom Brady and a sticky coverage against lesser weapons.

It’s not a matter of changing the unit’s philosophy, which Barry wants to be a heavy zone with two safeties deep. However, the NFL demands flexibility, and it’s hard to win consistently if a defense always plays the same way.

When a group has as much talent as the Packers’ defense does, it’s hard to justify such a passive approach. The coordinator must use the personnel advantage to do what’s best to stop the opposing offense. If the scheme doesn’t fully take advantage of that talent, the coaching process is flawed and may be costly for the franchise’s plans this season — and beyond.

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