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Matt LaFleur picks former Vikings assistant Jerry Gray to serve as Packers secondary coach

Tom Silverstein
Packers News

GREEN BAY - Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur has picked former Minnesota Vikings defensive backs coach Jerry Gray to replace secondary coach Jason Simmons, according to an NFL source.

Gray interviewed with LaFleur on Monday and Tuesday before leaving town, and a source said people inside the Packers organization were told LaFleur was hiring Gray. The Packers announced the hire Wednesday.

The source said LaFleur made the hire, which is significant given that Gray has been a defensive coordinator with two NFL organizations and does not have any ties with Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.

After a disastrous final game against the 49ers in the NFC championship game in which the defense allowed 285 yards rushing, LaFleur obviously wanted someone with experience who could inject new ideas into the defensive coaching room.

Minnesota Vikings defensive backs coach Jerry Gray during the 2015 Pro Football Hall of Fame game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Aug. 9, 2015, at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio.

In most cases, Pettine would have been more involved with a hiring to his staff. But LaFleur was open about his disappointment with the defense’s performance against the 49ers and had a chance to add his own hire when Simmons left to take a job with the Carolina Panthers.

Simmons oversaw both cornerbacks and safeties and was assisted by Ryan Downard, who has only four years of NFL coaching experience. Two of those seasons were in quality control, so it made sense that LaFleur was looking for someone with experience.

Gray, 57, comes from the Gregg Williams coaching tree and according to a coaching source who has researched him for a hire, will add experience and knowledge not just to the secondary but the entire defense. Williams’ system features a lot of exotic blitzes, and Gray has been a part of scheming many of those.

But he has also worked with other top defensive minds, including Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, and he has been able to implement his own system as a coordinator in Tennessee and Buffalo.

Gray has been interviewed five times for head-coaching jobs.

He has been described as strong-willed and unafraid to express his opinion, which may be part of the reason LaFleur wanted him to join the staff. It also gives him an option if he were to decide to fire Pettine in midseason.

Mostly, it provides the staff with a secondary coach who excelled at the cornerback position, earning four Pro Bowl invites with the Los Angeles Rams in the 1980s. His experience as a player and coach will be valuable to young corners Jaire Alexander, Kevin King, Josh Jackson and Chandon Sullivan and safeties Darnell Savage, Raven Greene and Will Redmond.

Simmons also played in the NFL, but he did not have the same playing success or coaching experience that Gray did. The players will have to adjust to Gray’s coaching style, which is hands-on and demanding.

LaFleur also interviewed former Miami Dolphins safeties coach Tony Oden, another veteran defensive backs coach.

Gray became available when Zimmer parted ways after the season with several long-time members of his defensive staff. Zimmer did not give a reason why Gray was not being retained.

When  Zimmer was hired as Vikings coach in 2014, he hired Gray, who had been Tennessee’s defensive coordinator from 2011-13. Gray spent the last five seasons coaching the Vikings' secondary, which featured a strong cast, including All-Pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes and All-Pro safety Harrison Smith.

The safety position has been the strongest with Andrew Sendejo and Anthony Harris teaming with Smith at different times over the last five years. This past season, the cornerbacks did not play well, especially Rhodes, who did not play anywhere near his 2017 All-Pro form.

Gray's best stretch as a coordinator came in Buffalo, where his defense jumped from 21st in 2001 to second in ’03 and ’04. In his final season, the defense fell to 29th and he was fired along with head coach Mike Mularkey.

He went on to coach the secondary in Washington from 2006-09 and Seattle in 2010 before Tennessee hired him to be defensive coordinator. His defenses ranked 18th, 27th and 14th in his three seasons there.

The Packers ranked 14th in pass defense last year, allowing an average of 232.6 yards per game. They ranked tied for third with the Vikings in interceptions with 17 and were sixth in lowest opponent passer rating at 81.1.

On the other hand, they ranked tied for 21st in fewest completions of 20 or more yards allowed (46) and 29th in fewest completions of 40 or more allowed (15).