What Happened to the Packers’ Defense?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Packers’ defense is bad. 

A lot has gone off the rails in this disappointing 2022 season, but there might be no bigger letdown than the performance of the Packers’ defense. Loaded with talent, the defense was supposed to make up for an offense that was anticipated to struggle with the loss of Davante Adams.  

Half of that came true. Although the Packers’ offense has cleaned it up a bit as the season has progressed, they aren’t the once-perennial top 5-10 unit that we’re used to with a healthy Aaron Rodgers under center. While the offense shoulders much of the blame for several losses this year, the defense has somehow underperformed even more drastically.  

The Packers have consistently had shaky defenses the past decade or so, but they tend to rank much higher when paired with some of the better Green Bay offenses in recent history. Even in some of their worst years, Packers defenses typically rank well in turnover differential and sacks.  

In the Matt LaFleur era since 2019, the Packers have had respectable regular season defenses. In 2019 they finished 9th in points allowed and 18th in yards allowed. In both 2020 and 2021, coincidentally the campaigns featuring the best offenses under LaFleur, Green Bay finished 13th in points allowed and 9th in yards allowed. They were right around league average in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA rankings all three years. Even just average to slightly above average defensive play helped the Packers win 13 games in three straight seasons. 

The 2022 defense on paper looked to be the most loaded unit the Packers have had in a long time. It’s the second year under coordinator Joe Barry with most players on the defense returning. The second year of a new scheme can typically see a leap from the first as players become more comfortable in the system. They also spent their two first-round picks this year on defense. 

The defensive line has only one true star in Kenny Clark, but the depth at this position looked strong. Dean Lowry was coming off the best season of his young career, and they signed a solid player in Jarran Reed. T.J. Slaton is a nice backup who looked good in preseason action. Green Bay also added a first-round pick to the group in Devonte Wyatt.  

The pass rush is led by young star Rashan Gary and consistent veteran Preston Smith. De’Vondre Campbell, who came out of nowhere to make the All-Pro team last year for the Packers, was re-signed to a long-term extension, making him a foundational piece in the core of the defense for years to come. Green Bay’s other first-round selection was linebacker Quay Walker, a big, fast player with tons of upside. 

The biggest strength of all looked to be the secondary. Jaire Alexander is an All-Pro and one of the premiere cornerbacks in the league. On the other side of the field is Eric Stokes, a second-year player who looked fantastic by rookie standards in 2021. Their third corner, Rasul Douglas, was signed off the street last season and exploded for a career-high 5 interceptions and 2 defensive touchdowns.  

Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos were set to lead at safety together for the fourth straight year. Savage, a first-round pick in 2019, has been largely underwhelming but had been a starting-caliber player. Amos is a steady veteran.  

The sum of these parts is the 21st ranked defense in points allowed and 18th in yards allowed. They’re the 22nd ranked defense by DVOA. What happened? 

It’s fair to start with the coordinator. Joe Barry is infamously the former coordinator of the Lions team that went 0-16. He plays an extremely basic, soft style of defense that promotes the opposing offense to execute slow, methodical drives. In theory, this would set the Packers up to be a bend-don’t-break kind of defense.  

Clearly, this isn’t working. Bend-don’t-break isn’t the worst kind of defense to have, but that’s not what Green Bay has been, as shown by the fact that they rank better in yards allowed than points allowed.  

It took until around midseason for Barry to allow Alexander to shadow the opposing team’s best wide receiver. Even still, Packers’ corners typically play 10+ yards off the ball, putting them out of position in run support.  

It’s sad that I miss the days of Mike Pettine as defensive coordinator. Pettine brought a lot of interesting and creative blitz packages. The Packers too often rely on their four-man front to get pressure on their own, a tall task considering Rashan Gary was lost to a season-ending ACL injury a month ago. The Packers rank 24th in sacks this year.  

It’s hard to say how much blame Barry should take for the regressions seen all over the defense. After being one of the best defensive players in football last season, De’Vondre Campbell has taken a major step back and has also missed time due to injury. He’s still been a good player when on the field, but not the game changer he appeared to be in 2021.  

Like Campbell, Rasul Douglas has been a fine player this year but not the playmaker he had been. In Campbell and Douglas’ cases, this might simply be a regression to the mean.  

Jaire Alexander is a great player but has been burned an alarming number of times this season. Luckily, he’s made up for it with crucial plays in big moments. Eric Stokes was straight up bad this season before getting injured.  

Darnell Savage is one of the bigger disappointments of this defense. His laughably poor tackling and consistency at being out of place in coverage got him benched for Rudy Ford a few weeks ago. He has a putrid 46.5 grade by Pro Football Focus. To make things worse, the Packers picked up Savage’s fifth-year option on his contract that’ll ensure he stays in Green Bay for at least one more year, unless the Packers cut their losses and eat a lot of dead money by cutting him.  

And yet, the secondary and the pass coverage aren’t the worst of the Packers’ defensive issues. They’re an awful run defense, giving up the second-most yards on the ground and allowing 5 yards per carry, tied for third worst.  

Kenny Clark is a phenomenal player but has been streaky. Teams can double team Clark more often now that Gary is out for the season, but also because the guys around him aren’t getting it done. Dean Lowry is getting pushed around like a practice sled in the run game. Jarran Reed has been a non-factor. First-rounder Devonte Wyatt could develop into something, but it’s obvious the coaching staff thinks he’s not ready yet. He hardly gets any playing time.  

The only truly great defensive player the Packers have lost on defense to injury this season is Gary. Stokes was inexplicably terrible when playing, and rookie Quay Walker did an admirable job when more was asked of him in Campbell’s absence. Injuries aren’t a major factor in the failures of this defense.  

The question is whether the defensive scheme and the regression of multiple key players are coincidental or not. Next year could answer that question, but it’s impossible to say for sure right now. It’s the same scheme as last year – though I’d say the Packers weren’t as good last year on defense as they were in 2019 and 2020 under Mike Pettine. It’s been a quick decline under new coordination.  

Green Bay is in a tough spot. Rodgers will probably be in a Packers uniform again next year barring retirement. They’ll want to spend a good chunk of the cash and picks they have on weapons to bolster the offense.  

But taking yet another defensive player with next year’s first pick is reasonable; and it speaks to the failures of the front office. With their last 12 first-round picks dating back to 2012, the Packers have selected 11 defensive players. Since 2012, they’ve been a top-10 scoring defense once and below average for most of those years.  

I’m not holding my breath that the Packers will make a change at defensive coordinator for 2023, but it seems with each passing week that grows more likely. As much as certain players have not lived up to their potential or standards, Green Bay is simply not the sum of their parts. I still believe they have too much talent to not at least be league average. That’s a coaching issue.  

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Liam O’Donnell is a devoted Packers fan and an aspiring sportswriter from Milwaukee. He writes for PackersTalk.com and you can follow him on twitter at @liamodonnell___.

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