Green Bay Packers

Jeff Hafley's Aggressive Scheme Is A Complete Reversal Of Joe Barry's Soft Zones

Photo Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

Matt LaFleur announced his third defensive coordinator in five years on Wednesday. His known interviews focused on young, lower-level assistants working in successful schemes and omitted high-profile incumbents like Wink Martindale, Mike Vrabel, and Bill Belichick. When former Baltimore Ravens DC Mike Macdonald accepted Seattle’s head coaching job, it looked like a major domino that would affect Green Bay’s vacancy. Two Baltimore position coaches were among the most heavily rumored names and on the known shortlist. But five hours later, ESPN’s Pete Thamel surprisingly reported that Boston College head coach Jeff Hafley would succeed the much-maligned Joe Barry.

“Much-maligned” has been a constant for recent Packers DCs, thoroughly predating LaFleur’s tenure. Many fans lightheartedly got a head start on what has typically followed this part of the cycle, tweeting, “Fire Hafley.” An inability to maximize defensive personnel was part of the ink that cast a stain of tragedy on Aaron Rodgers‘ Super Bowl window. But in typical Packers fashion, it suddenly feels like Jordan Love‘s championship window is wide open. If the third time is the charm for LaFleur, Hafley can go a long way toward exorcizing the demons that seem to haunt Green Bay each January.

Schematically, Hafley‘s approach appears to be a reversal from Joe Barry’s soft zone, blitz-allergic defense. Hafley has a man-heavy, aggressive scheme. It encourages press coverage because it disrupts timing and eliminates the route tree. That feels like excellent news for Jaire Alexander, who figures to get more one-on-one opportunities against the trio of bonafide No. 1 receivers in the NFC North – Justin Jefferson, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and D.J. Moore.

Alexander has expressed a desire for more autonomy regarding elite wideouts. Under Hafley, he appears poised to become every bit the menace on the field that his talent and flamboyance suggest that he should. Opposing quarterbacks have stayed mainly clear of Jaire Island. Hafley’s scheme will bring the island to their first read.

The secondary feels like the spot where we’ll see the most change. Hafley spent 14 years as a defensive backs coach at the collegiate and NFL levels before Ohio State, the crown jewel of his resumé, hired him as their defensive coordinator. Carrington Valentine played big and physical as a rookie seventh-rounder, and he figures to have a role as a press defender.

We don’t know if Eric Stokes can regain the speed and agility that made him a first-round pick just three years ago, but he flashed in his rookie season. Suppose Hafley employs the 4-3 look from his Ohio State and Boston College days. That would leave Keisean Nixon, who started at slot corner in 2023, on the outs. However, Brian Gutekunst said in his presser Thursday that “this is a 4-2-5 nickel league.” In other words, he won’t be building the team any differently than he has been.

The most important position the Packers must address this offseason is undoubtedly safety. It was a problem this time last year, but Gutekunst decided to allocate his capital on edge rusher, tight end, and receiver. He pressed his luck with former first-round pick Darnell Savage Jr., Rudy Ford, Jonathan Owens, Anthony Johnson Jr, and Savage had their moments, but none earned a permanent role. The need has only intensified after adding Hafley, who ran Cover-1 on an astounding 43.1% of plays last season. Cover-1 consists of man coverage with a single-high safety, so it requires an elite center fielder who can man that crucial role.

Gutekunst is armed with more than enough draft capital to make a play for one of the top safeties on the board. He has all his picks, plus the New York Jets’ second due to the Rodgers trade and a third after trading Rasul Douglas to the Buffalo Bills at the deadline. Kamren Kinchens, Tyler Nubin, and Calen Bullock headline the class, but Kinchens is a versatile, athletic freak. There’s also free agency, where Antoine Winfield Jr. is the main attraction.

Discussing the open market has been a waste of time when the Packers trudged through salary cap purgatory. But Gutekunst made a rare remark at Thursday’s presser, proclaiming that he “doesn’t think we’ll shy away from adding impact players.” Not to mention, he shelled out for Adrian Amos and the Smith brothers in his first offseason at the helm. It’s not like we’ve seen him shop at the top of the market.

Fans can expect Hafley’s scheme to be an inversion of the soft-zone, blitz-allergic concepts that made the Packers horrifyingly ineffective on third downs. He will put corners in a position to play press-man coverage and impose their will on the outside. It makes sense for them to add to the room, given the long-term uncertainty about Valentine and Stokes. But there’s no question that Jaire Alexander will be every bit the menace he was born to be, should he stay healthy.

Safety was already important, but now it’s code red ahead of the first offseason of Love’s championship window. Many of the pieces are in place on the front seven. Like many preceding years, fulfilling expectations will come down to maximizing a unit with clear top-10 potential on paper. Perhaps Hafley can do what Pettine and Barry before him could not. Hopefully, the third time’s the charm.

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