Defensive coordinator Joe Barry on fixing Packers talented, inconsistent defense: ‘It starts with me’

Ryan Wood
Green Bay Press-Gazette
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GREEN BAY – When he returned to work in February, doing the autopsy on a season that started with such high expectations but never materialized into anything more than disappointment, Joe Barry combed through every play.

He had a chance to fix what broke on a Green Bay Packers defense loaded with first-round picks. An opportunity many NFL coordinators in his position might not have gotten. This is a tough business for underachievement, but Barry said he never questioned if coach Matt LaFleur would keep him on staff, even as his defense floundered.

Barry understood the uptick in last season’s final five games, the way he evolved his scheme over the course of the fall, would be enough for a second chance. He also knew third chances in the NFL are exceptionally rare.

“There were a number of things, it starts with me,” Barry said, “that I have to do better. In order for this group to play better, I have to do better.”

Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry talks about the upcoming season.

As he dissected the snaps one by one, Barry saw trends emerge. The Packers struggled most in situational football, alarming considering football is a situational game. Barry highlighted the same three situational phases every defensive coordinator focuses on: third down, red zone and two-minute drill.

The Packers were among the NFL’s 10 best defenses getting off the field on third down last season, finishing seventh with a 37.6% conversion rate for opponents, though there was a slight uptick late in the year. They were much better in home games (including the neutral site game in London), where they ranked fifth with a 32.6% conversion rate. In away games, the Packers allowed opponents to convert 42.1% of their third downs, ranking 22nd in the NFL.

They ranked 11th in red-zone defense, allowing opponents to score touchdowns on 53.7% of their trips inside the 20-yard line, but again there was a significant gap in home vs. away games. In home games, the Packers limited opponent touchdowns inside the red zone to 50%, ranking tied for 10th. They ranked 16th in away games, allowing opponents to score touchdowns on 57.1% of their trips inside the 20.

The Packers were equally insufficient finishing halves last season. They were outscored 38-21 within the final two minutes of the half in eight away games. In nine home games, they were outscored 40-31.

‘We can’t be up one week and down the next’

“If you do go back and really critique last year, the inconsistencies were the things that really got us,” Barry said. “We played well at times, we didn’t play well at times. And that’s what you can't do in this league. … On our side of the ball, on the defensive side of the ball, that’s the thing that we’ve got to do week in and week out, is that we’ve got to show up and play our best version of football, our best version of defense.

“We can’t be up one week and down the next. We’ve got to find that consistency and show up every single week.”

There was another inconsistency Barry mentioned, particularly problematic for the Packers defense last season. No matter how much a defense makes its opponent work to move the football, a good series can be undone in one play.

Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson picks up 64 yards on a reception while being covered by Green Bay Packers safety Darnell Savage.

The Packers were among the NFL’s worst defenses last season allowing explosive plays. With 55 explosive runs on 424 defended carries, their 13% average explosive run rate ranked 28th in the NFL, according to Sharp Football Stats. Even with regular miscommunications in the secondary early in the season, they were better limiting explosive pass plays. Their 44 explosive passes allowed against 660 throws came with a 7% average explosive pass rate that tied for third best in the league.

No area improved in the final five games more than the Packers secondary. Their tackling against the run remains a primary focus of concern.

“We can get a little better at everything,” defensive tackle Kenny Clark said. “Tackling, for sure. Stopping the run. I think if we get guys in third-and-long situations, those situations are great for us. For all the talent that we’ve got on our side of the ball, we’ve got to hold up our end of the bargain.”

‘We put a lot of investment into that group and there are high expectations’

Barry has no shortage of talent at his disposal. The Packers defense now includes eight first-round draft picks after selecting outside linebacker Lukas Van Ness with the 13th overall pick this spring, a gluttony of high-draft capital general manager Brian Gutekunst emphasized. Even the starters who were not first-round picks have proven NFL production.

Cornerback Rasul Douglas was a third-round pick in 2017, but he’s among the Packers best defenders. Linebacker De’Vondre Campbell was a fourth-round pick in 2016, but he was selected first-team All-Pro two seasons ago. Barry doesn’t know who will start at safety alongside 2019 first-round pick Darnell Savage, the open vacancy atop his depth chart, but his defense should have everything it needs to succeed.

No different than a year ago.

“It’s unusual,” Gutekunst said after the draft,” that it’s that many years (drafting defense in the first round), but I do think that expectations are high. I sat here last year and said the same thing. I think we had really good moments last year, but the consistency has to be better.

“We put a lot of investment into that group and there are high expectations.”

It starts with Barry. He’s the conductor holding the levers, responsible for arranging the talent in the right places to meet expectations. His autopsy is over now. Barry, never one to be too reflective, knows the coming organized team activity period of the Packers offseason lays the foundation for what’s next.

He didn’t need to watch the film of last season to understand results must come sooner.

“We don’t have time,” Barry said, “to waste 10 weeks.”

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