GREEN BAY, Wis. -- There’s no shortage of NFL teams vowing to be more aggressive on defense this season.
A Google search for “defenses that will be more aggressive in 2023” hits this way:
New Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores proclaiming, “I like to be aggressive.”
First-year 49ers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks saying, "I want to be aggressive and have those guys react to us.”
Bills linebacker A.J. Klein conveying, “This defense will be more aggressive” with coach Sean McDermott taking over playcalling.
That’s just the first page of results.
So it’s not exactly revolutionary when the Green Bay Packers make analogous claims. After all, what defense has ever said that it wants to be less aggressive?
At least the Packers have offered a glimpse into what “more aggressive” means to them.
For some, aggressive loosely translates to more blitzes. In Green Bay, it applies more appropriately to the secondary -- specifically the coverage plan.
The talk of aggressiveness came to a head last season, one in which the Packers’ defense never lived up to its billing. A year after a top-10 defensive ranking in Joe Barry’s first season as coordinator, the Packers slipped to 17th. And it would have been lower if not for the four-game, late-season winning streak during which the defense ranked 11th in yards allowed from Weeks 13-17. During that stretch, only six teams allowed fewer points than the Packers. It may have saved Barry’s job.
Barry didn’t rest on that. According to several players, the defensive position coaches not only conducted their usual individual exit interviews with players after the season, but Barry pulled the group together one last time.
And he let the players do the talking.
“He said, ‘You all don’t know it, but I’m going to communicate what you guys want to do,’” cornerback Rasul Douglas recalled.
“We basically told him we want to be aggressive. We want to be up close in guys’ faces and we want to challenge and make throws tight.”
Douglas believes the message not only made it all the way to the top but was met with approval from coach Matt LaFleur.
“So far,” Douglas said, “that’s what he’s doing.”
No one could offer a reasonable explanation for why it took so long, but the Packers actually began to show some of that late last year. The problems started right away in Week 1, when Barry declined to give All-Pro cornerback Jaire Alexander the matchup with Vikings star receiver Justin Jefferson. It allowed Jefferson to run free to the tune of nine catches for 184 yards and two touchdowns in a Vikings win.
The Week 17 rematch was a different story. Alexander stuck with Jefferson wherever he lined up, and Jefferson finished with just one catch for 15 yards in a Packers runaway win.
“I think at this point it’s pretty self-explanatory, you know?” Alexander said recently when asked if that will be the plan more often than not this season. “That’s just the way.”
Meanwhile, Douglas had shifted last season to the nickel/slot position rather than stay outside, where he dominated in 2021 with five interceptions (including two pick-sixes) in 12 games. It wasn’t until cornerback Eric Stokes' season-ending foot and knee injuries at Detroit in Week 9 that Douglas returned outside, where he intends to stay.
“I prefer being outside,” he said without hesitation.
For now, All-Pro kick returner Keisean Nixon has the slot position to himself. The plan for when Stokes (who is on PUP) is cleared, however, has not been revealed.
“He’s got that dog mindset and he can f---ing run,” Douglas said. “We like that.”
Translation: Nixon plays aggressively.
But there’s another aspect to aggressive play in the secondary: press coverage. It doesn’t mean the days of Alexander, Douglas & Co. playing yards off the line of scrimmage might be over completely, but there has been a conscious effort to reduce it and play more man and less zone coverages.
That’s where new defensive passing game coordinator Greg Williams comes into the picture.
“He’s been helping me with my alignment,” Alexander said. “Because sometimes I have a tendency to play a little farther off than normal. That’s just how I play. So he’s been trying to tighten my leverage down some and try to play it from there.”
Williams was hired following the departure of Jerry Gray, a popular position coach among the defensive backs who tried at times to distance himself from Barry’s game plans and scheme – especially as it pertained to why Alexander wasn’t used to shadow top receivers more often or why safety Darnell Savage wasn’t used closer to the line of scrimmage.
The Packers still have to find a running mate for Savage at the other safety spot, but in the last week free agent pickup Jonathan Owens appears to have taken the lead in that competition with Rudy Ford and Tarvarius Moore.
“I think last year, we were making a bunch of excuses for ourselves,” Alexander said. “Joe Barry can go out and call whatever call he wants to, but at the end of the day, we have to execute that call.”
When Barry last spoke to reporters earlier this offseason, he said he believed the defense “evolved” last year into what he wants it to be this year. It’s not for a lack of talent. With the addition of Lukas Van Ness (the No. 13 overall pick in the 2023 draft), Barry could have as many as eight former first-rounders at his disposal when healthy.
“I think we’ve got a lot of talent on the defensive side of the ball and it’s our job to try to maximize that and get guys to play at their potential,” LaFleur said. “In this business, if you don’t evolve, you fall behind.”
That doesn’t just apply to the secondary. The defensive line will have a different, and younger, look. Devonte Wyatt, the 28th pick in the 2022 draft, has emerged as a potential playmaker next to veteran Kenny Clark, while third-year pro T.J. Slaton has made a jump. And there are rookies Colby Wooden (fourth round) and Karl Brooks (sixth round), who could change the makeup of the line with veterans Dean Lowry and Jarran Reed now out of the picture.
It also should not be forgotten that the Packers’ run defense was actually far worse than their coverage. In fact, they ranked sixth in the NFL in passing yards allowed -- a deceiving number given that they tied for 26th in yards allowed per pass attempt -- but they ranked 26th in rushing yards allowed and 28th in yards allowed per rushing attempt.
There’s still reason to be cautious. At this time last year, the Packers raved about their defensive talent.
“It didn’t translate to the field last year,” Clark said. “But all we can keep doing is going to work and hope we do it this year.”