Green Bay Packers

How the Packers Can Set Their New Defense Up For Success

Photo Credit: Mark Hoffman via USA TODAY Sports

The Green Bay Packers’ defensive coordinator position has to be a popular opening. The Packers have their franchise quarterback in the building, an ascending, cheap offense, and a ton of draft capital invested into high-upside players on defense.

But fate hasn’t been kind to Green Bay’s past defensive coordinators. Fans quickly ran Dom Capers, Mike Pettine, and Joe Barry out of town thanks to inconsistent units and poor execution. Green Bay was right to move on, but it’s fair to question the handling of these coordinators and whether they were put in the best position to succeed.

As long as Green Bay’s front office continues to operate the way it has, the offense will be the belle of the ball. The Packers have min-maxxed by focusing on their quarterback and surrounding cast. But after so many years of defensive (and special teams!) collapses, it’s evident that the team needs to change its approach to defense. If the Packers want to have at least a league-average defense and play complementary football to support the offense, they need to examine their approach to the defensive side of the ball, regardless of who they hire as their next DC.

There have been two defensive coordinators in the Matt LaFleur era, and both had similar backgrounds. First, we’ll examine what didn’t work with Mike Pettine and Joe Barry.

While both men came from different defensive backgrounds, they were experienced coordinators with histories of working with different teams. Both also had “inherited” roles.

When LaFleur joined the Packers in 2019, he maintained Pettine from Mike McCarthy’s staff. Pettine offered a promising improvement over Capers’ final few seasons. His previous experience as the Cleveland Browns head coach also gave LaFleur an experienced veteran he could learn from. The logic of letting Pettine essentially be the “head coach” of the defense while LaFleur mainly focused on the offense made sense at the time.

But it became clear that Pettine couldn’t keep up with how opposing offenses were evolving, and there were frequent communication breakdowns. LaFleur let Pettine’s contract expire and hired Barry, his second choice, to lead. Barry kept most of Pettine’s staff intact. It was an odd move that indicated that the Packers had the right pieces in place; a change at the top was the only thing holding the defense back.

Barry’s results at previous stops didn’t indicate he could be the coordinator to elevate the defense to the next level. Unfortunately, he wasn’t any more successful in Green Bay. Despite promising stretches, the defense was consistently inconsistent and collapsed more often than it succeeded. Again, Barry didn’t show the ability to adapt. Communication issues persisted.

Two points are immediately clear. The new defense needs to be adaptable, and the new coordinator must build their coaching staff.

Offense dominates in the NFL, and we’re seeing more exciting young quarterbacks and pro-ready wide receivers emerge every year. The game’s rules favor the offense. A defensive scheme can only take one so far — a good coordinator must react from game to game and even from drive to drive.

The Packers could go for a young up-and-comer or prioritize experience. There are many retread options out there. Some are exciting, and some are groan-inducing. But some former head coaches who embraced their DC role and kept up with the game run the best defenses in the league. Adaptability and attitude must be the top traits the Packers seek in this cycle.

Based on the reported names we’ve seen, the Packers are casting a wide schematic net with their search. Different backgrounds are being considered, which is more important than simply wanting to run a certain scheme.

LaFleur inherited Pettine’s staff, while Barry inherited most of that. Cutting off the hydra’s head wasn’t the issue.

I’ve seen the phrase “Matt LaFleur needs to find his Matt LaFleur” thrown around on the old Twitter machine, and it makes a lot of sense. A promising figure with a creative mind needs the freedom to build their staff. Prioritize finding the coordinator with a clear vision of what the defense should look like, and let him hire the people he needs to make that a reality. While a good defense needs to be reactive, building the coaching staff must be proactive.

On LaFleur’s end, he needs to find the right manager and give them the freedom to craft the defensive room they need to succeed. However, Brian Gutekunst and the front office can also better support the new regime.

Sure, the front office has invested 4,000 first-round picks on defense. And some of them have been really good! But their strategy of getting athletic monsters and molding them hasn’t always worked. Pritioizing athletic players is good! But a greater focus on intangibles, keeping up with the modern NFL, and giving the coordinator more input with players can help the shiny new DC have a better shot.

Among the most common criticisms of Green Bay’s defenses is a lack of aggression and fire. Barry’s scheme was particularly soft, not allowing players to be in their best positions. Tackling hasn’t been great, and we’ve seen star players yield on big moments. Former defensive lineman Mike Daniels has long criticized Green Bay’s defensive energy.

The Packers need to find players who want to tackle and disrupt offenses. Simply being a good athlete doesn’t mean you’ll have the fire to attack ruthlessly. They need more players like Karl Brooks, who didn’t have Green Bay’s usual athletic profile. But he had a proven history of dominating the opposition, which would be nice. Whatever the new DC’s core philosophy, the players they bring in need to match.

The front office has also long neglected the nickel corner, an emerging position that’s crucial to the modern defense. The Packers have taken a square-peg-in-a-round-hole approach or thrown fringe-roster players in the role.

A lot of damage can come from the inside, and defense must be able to defend the middle of the field. Smaller receivers are doing more damage in the league, and defenses must react. Just as the Packers seemed to relax their size restrictions for wide receivers, viewing a slot receiver as a different archetype from a boundary receiver, they need to treat “slot corner” and “outside corner” as two different roles when considering size.

By empowering the new defensive coordinator, treating him as the “head coach” of his unit, and modernizing their approach to roster building, the Packers can better put their new coordinator in a spot to succeed where maybe their previous DCs weren’t. The less Matt LaFleur has to babysit the defense, the more he can do for the offense and the more he can focus on other duties. A defense built to complement the offense and adapt without needing too much oversight will help the new maximize their chances for a deep post-season run.

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