The Packers have been blessed with close to thirty years of elite quarterback play. Someone must have made a deal with the devil to get those years because you can count on one hand the number of years over that time that the team has had a truly elite defense. And most of those defenses were in the mid-90s. Will the Joe Barry defense be elite?
There’s a lot of tidbits floating around about Barry’s scheme. It will be based on Vic Fangio’s scheme. It will use less dime. It will use a two high “shell”. Here’s what you need to know going into the 2021 season.
There will be a lot of the same
I have a conspiracy theory that when Matt LaFleur joined the team in 2019, he told Pettine to run the Fangio scheme. We know that LaFleur admired the scheme at the time.
The defense that Ryan and Pettine ran in Baltimore and New York, and that Pettine brought to Buffalo and Cleveland, was centered around press man coverage and creative blitz packages. Do you remember Pettine using those concepts with the Packers?
In Green Bay, Pettine used a ton of light boxes, played soft zone coverage, and talked about creating an illusion of complexity so that quarterbacks couldn’t identify pre-snap what the defense was. That sounds like a Vic Fangio/Brandon Staley defense.
Don’t be shocked if the Packers’ defense looks a lot alike this year. The base defense will be a 3-4. A lot of the time there will be four guys on the line of scrimmage and two (linebackers or safeties) behind them. Sometimes the defense will have five guys on the line and only one linebacker. The corners probably won’t press very often and will usually be in zone coverage.
The difference, hopefully, is that Barry knows the scheme well and will make the changes that the team needs.
There will be some changes
When the Packers signed Dennis Kelly earlier this offseason, he mentioned that when he was with the Titans’ last year, they knew exactly what defenses the Packers were running. This should be the most effective difference.
More than Kenny Clark or Preston Smith having a comeback year. More than Darnell Savage maturing into an all-pro safety. More than any of the other changes we’ll talk about later. Simply having a scheme where the offense doesn’t know what you’re doing could mean going from a middle of the road defense to an elite one. The Packers have the talent to be elite.
The Athletic’s Jordan Rodrigue wrote about this recently. When run correctly, the Fangio defensive scheme has a lot in common with the Shanahan offensive scheme. Neither scheme wants the other side to know what’s going to happen before the play. They line up in similar formations most of the time and the first few seconds of every snap look the same. As soon as the other team starts to key on something or someone, they take advantage for a big play.
The Packers will likely start most plays in a two high shell. That means both safeties will be lined up further away from the ball than anyone else. A lot of the time, when the team is playing cover 2, 4, or 6, they’ll stay there in deep coverage. But there will also be a lot of plays where one of them rotates down in the box or one of them takes the tight end in man coverage. The key is that the QB will not know what’s happening until it’s too late.
Additionally, there will be some more noticeable changes. Acme Packing Company’s Justis Mosqueda talked about how the defense will be run from left to right on a recent podcast. Where most defenses shift to the run strength of the offense, part of the Packers’ disguise is that they usually won’t. This means you’ll see some weird stuff. Like Preston Smith lining up over a slot receiver in coverage. By doing this, the defense won’t need as much frantic communication when the offense sends guys in motion or shifts the run strength.
Last year, the Packers ran the most dime and the least nickel in the league. According to Mosqueda, Barry will likely just match personnel with the offense. That means if the offense is only using two wide receivers, the Packers defense will be in the base 3-4 formation. When the offense uses three wide receivers, the Packers will go to nickel.
It may take a while, but eventually you’ll forget about watching 200-pound Packers safeties attempting to take on 330 lb pulling guards right before a running back sprints 70 yards to the house.
There will still be some frustrations
Another Packers twitter must follow is Ben Fennell. For a few years now, Fennell has admired teams like the Colts and Rams who play soft zone coverage and tackle well. The opposing offense racks up a lot of yards, but there are very rarely explosive plays.
Fennell got his wish this offseason and the Packers will be doing a lot of this. The corners will be in off coverage and there will be a lot of easy short completions. The defense is betting that the other offense will not be patient enough to go all the way down the field in 4-yard or 8-yard bursts.
Unless you’re going against a QB like Philip Rivers who Is supernaturally patient, it usually works. But it can be frustrating to watch the other team march down the field with impunity. Especially if the team’s tackling is anything like it has been over the past several years (terrible).
You may have to have Phil Rivers level patience with this defense as it transitions into a, sort of, new scheme.
Mike Price is a lifelong Packers fan currently living in Utah. You can follow him on twitter at @themikeprice.