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Thursday Morning Ramblings: Green Bay’s Defense the Real Story of 2021

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Over the last three and a half months, fans of the Green Bay Packers have heard enough about Aaron Rodgers, Brain Gutekunst and Mark Murphy to last a lifetime. 

Fortunately, with Rodgers back in camp, the focus can shift back to football. And for as much attention as weill be paid to the offense in Rodgers’ (presumptive) final year with the team, Jordan Love’s first live game action and the return of Randall Cobb, it’s the defense that strikes me as being the real story of the season to come.

Really, there’s not much turnover on the offense. The team has had another year to grow and evolve in Matt LaFleur’s system. They’re bringing back all starters except Corey Linsley (and David Bakhtiari, until he returns from injury). There’s not much mystery in what the Packers are capable of on offense.

As is seemingly always the case in Green Bay, it’s the defense that’s the real question mark, especially after an offseason of shakeup.

As many predicted they would, the Green Bay Packers declined to renew the contract of former coordinator Mike Pettine in the offseason, paving the way for the kind of change-up many fans (myself included0 were calling for throughout the season.

The hiring of Joe Barry, a retread coordinator who has failed to impress in his first two go-arounds, wasn’t exactly an inspiring event. But at least so far, the players seem to have good things to say.

Says Rodgers: 

“It’s not like any of the other defenses I’ve ever practiced with… guys are playing more free in various spots.” 

Rodgers went on to complement the energy Barry brings to the team.

What’s more, defensive leader ZaDarius Smith says Barry has been “letting us be us,” and setting up a system in which players are able to succeed by letting them do what they’re good at.

Now, it’s still the first week of August. The quality of Barry’s defense won’t be tested for quite some time yet. 

But anyone who watched the Packers in 2020 saw a team that clearly needed a change in defensive mindset. 

The Mike Pettine defense had grown incredibly stale and passive. Between guys playing way off the line of scrimmage in coverage (even in short-yardage situations), a constant reliance on three- and four-man rushes and a generally soft middle of the field, teams were able to routinely take advantage of the Packers’ defense. 

Pettine was an improvement for three seasons over Dom Capers, don’t get me wrong. But, like, so is a doormat.

The one thing that Barry has going for him in this, his third shot, is that he’s got more talent on this defense than he’s had anywhere else. The Packers have not had a defense this talented in at least a decade. For whatever reason, Pettine was unable to make this defense as strong as it should have been, given the quality of its individual components.

It would be far too reductive to blame the defense entirely for the team’s NFC Championship game disappointment against Tampa. 

But the last time the Packers had a defense that could reliably step up and win the team a game in a crunch time situation was at least 2014, and arguably 2010. There has never been a sense in the last three years that the Pettine-led defense would be able to hold up against strong competition.

The focus throughout much of the year to come is going to be on Aaron Rodgers and the prospect of this being his final year in green and gold.

But more than anything Rodgers does, it’s on the defense to get this team over the NFC Championship hump and back to the Super Bowl in this ‘last dance” season.

 

______

 

Quick Hits: August 5th 

Some quick, random Green Bay Packers-related thoughts:

 

  • Recent statistics have the NFL at more than 90 percent for player vaccination rate. That’s a huge deal with a month still to go before the regular season. Here’s to a year without any COVID interruptions!

 

  • The Packers have been experimenting with Kamal Martin at OLB a bit. I think it’s unlikely Martin will get significant snaps at OLB during the regular season, considering he’s needed much more inside, but it can help to have some versatility. And if you’re going to try moving guys around to see how it plays out, camp is the time to do it.

 

  • Elgton Jenkins still somehow manages to be one of the league’s most underrated players. And I know, he’s starting to get some recognition (all pro and pro bowl nods last year), but the NFL landscape as a whole does not talk about him enough as one of the premier linemen in the game. With the Colts’ Quenton Nelson likely to miss a significant amount of time due to injury, Jenkins is far and away the best interior lineman in the game, and he’s shown his skills and versatility once again throughout camp.

 

  • Josh Myers has already earned the Packers’ starting center job, and has drawn praise from Rodgers, LaFleur and others for his skills and professionalism. It’s looking like right now, with the addition of Myers, this will be one of the biggest offensive lines in the league.

 

  • Rashan Gary will push for a Pro Bowl spot this year. You heard it here first.

 

  • Big props to Preston Smith, who said he wasn’t tempted to turn down a pay cut request from the Packers after having a down year. He said he also recognized that the money helped the team re-sign Aaron Jones. A lot of folks (myself included) expected the Packers would cut Smith this offseason and were surprised and annoyed when they did not, but if Smith is able to regain his 2019 form, then watch out, because this pass rush will be unstoppable.

 

  • We’re finally here, folks. Starting this weekend, there is football every single weekend through Super Bowl Sunday. It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

 

  • Go Pack.

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