The Green Bay Packers are no strangers to the 3-4 defensive scheme, having stuck with it since Dom Capers took the reins as their defensive coordinator in 2009. But after hiring Jeff Hafley, there’s a lot of speculation about potential changes.
Hafley leaned heavily on the 4-3 setup at Boston College. However, his coaching philosophy extends beyond a singular defensive scheme. In addition to the 4-3, Hafley implemented a substantial amount of Cover 3 principles. Furthermore, he has demonstrated a willingness to deploy 3-4 packages when the situation demands it.
Green Bay’s shift in coaching leadership from Joe Barry to Hafley appears to signify a transition in defensive mentality rather than solely an adjustment in personnel or scheme. It’s hard to overlook the contrast between Hafley’s aggressive approach and Barry’s preference for softer zone coverage. Hafley’s defensive philosophy emphasizes physicality at the line of scrimmage, a penchant for more man-to-man coverage, and the deployment of a safety in a hybrid linebacker role in the box.
In addressing Hafley’s hire during his season-ending press conference, Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst emphasized a modern perspective on defensive schemes. “This is a 4-2-5 league,” he said. Gutekunst highlighted Hafley’s scheme flexibility, indicating that whether the Packers decide to maintain the 3-4 or transition to a 4-3, the impact may not be significant.
The Packers look like they can transition to a 4-3 defense under Jeff Hafley, given their personnel strengths upfront. Kenny Clark had 10 sacks in 2023, which is a career-high for him. Karl Brooks had the second-most batted passes and landed in the top five for quarterback hits and hurries among rookies. Devonte Wyatt led all categories among defensive linemen in his class, topping charts in pressures, sacks, QB hits, and hurries.
Transitioning to a 4-3 defense could prompt position shifts for foundational players on Green Bay’s roster. Rashan Gary and Lukas Van Ness played substantial college snaps on the defensive line, but they may return to their roots as defensive ends. Gary was a defensive line prospect in 2019, but the Packers converted him to outside linebacker to fit their scheme.
Green Bay’s defensive transition also has the advantage of considerable depth, allowing for a constant rotation scheme based on situational football. Rashan Gary‘s flexibility to line up inside, along with Van Ness, provides versatility in the defensive front. The Packers can alternate between Kenny Clark, Karl Brooks, and Devonte Wyatt for pass-rushing scenarios on the inside. Moreover, the depth extends to non-blitzing plays, where even players like Quay Walker can contribute to rushing the quarterback.
Gary and Van Ness’s adaptability becomes even more noteworthy, considering they are at least 10 lbs. lighter than Green Bay’s top three defensive linemen. Despite being slightly lighter, their agility and speed make them effective from the edge and interior positions. By sliding them inside, the Packers can exploit gaps where offensive linemen may not be accustomed to defending against lighter, more nimble defenders.
The linebacker position emerges as a significant focal point for the Packers, necessitating attention regardless of the defensive scheme. Green Bay has four linebackers under contract for the 2024 season: De’Vondre Campbell, Quay Walker, Isaiah McDuffie, and Christian Young. However, Eric Wilson and Kristian Welch’s impending unrestricted free agency creates a potential void in the linebacker corps. They’ll need additional depth if the Packers shift to a 4-3 defensive alignment. That will require acquisitions through free agency, the draft, or a combination of both.
Green Bay’s highest-paid linebacker, De’Vondre Campbell, had PFF grades under 69 in defense overall, run defense, tackling, and coverage while facing injury concerns. Campbell’s defensive grade has experienced a decline since his All-Pro season in 2021, when he had an 84.7 grade. However, it dropped to 75.6 in 2022 and further decreased to 65.3 last year. Walker and Isaiah McDuffie demonstrated above-average tackling grades at 81.8 and 77.1, respectively. But their coverage and run defense metrics remained substandard.
In addition to addressing the linebacker position, the Packers must also focus on bolstering their safety corps. Darnell Savage, Rudy Ford, and Jonathan Owens are all set to become free agents in March. Ford led the safety group in interceptions, while Owens proved his value as a reliable special teams contributor and depth player.
Inconsistencies marked Savage’s season, highlighted by missed games due to injury and mixed performances when healthy. He showed flashes, like his pick-six against the Dallas Cowboys. But Savage also struggled, notably allowing touchdowns to George Kittle and missing a crucial tackle on Christian McCaffrey‘s run against the San Francisco 49ers.
With the impending free agency of key safeties, the Packers can explore the market for potential additions. Xavier McKinney, Kamren Curl, and Jeremy Chinn present intriguing options for Green Bay. They offer the versatility needed to fill the hybrid safety role effectively.
With a solid foundation of talent up front and the potential to make a transition in defensive scheme, the Packers have positioned themselves for success. However, addressing the linebacker position is crucial in fortifying the defensive lineup. Suppose Green Bay secures the necessary depth at that position and pairs that with consistent performances from their under-contract players. Then, their defense will possess the essential tools to elevate their game to the next level.