GREEN BAY, Wis. – Mike Pettine might not have been a great defensive coordinator – there’s a reason why the Green Bay Packers replaced him with Joe Barry, after all – but he did provide some great words of wisdom.
“A wise coach told me a long time ago you can fly to Miami a lot faster than you can walk there,” Pettine said in 2019 about prioritizing pass defense over run defense. “You’re going to get beat through the air. That’s the bottom line.”
Pettine’s defenses made enormous strides in that regard last season. Green Bay allowed 39 completions of 20-plus yards, the fourth-fewest in the NFL. The Los Angeles Rams, for whom Barry served as linebackers coach and assistant head coach the previous four seasons, and Washington Football Team allowed a league-low 36. The Rams allowed only two touchdown passes of 20-plus yards, the fewest in the league. The Packers gave up seven, which was tied for eighth-fewest.
From 2015 through 2019, the Packers on average allowed 53.4 completions and 9.6 touchdowns on completions of 20-plus yards. Those figures ranked 23rd and 26th, respectively.
Other than turnover differential, with Green Bay a resounding 19-0 when winning the turnover battle under Matt LaFleur, the secret sauce to winning games is the creating and preventing of big plays. And, as Pettine said, that starts with the passing game. Of the top five teams in 20-yard passing-play differential, four reached conference championship games last season. The outlier was Houston, which was plus-17 in big-play passes but fielded one of the worst pass defenses in NFL history and was minus-9 in turnovers.
Now, it’s up to Barry to build upon Pettine’s foundation. He failed in stints as coordinator in Detroit and Washington but those were woefully undermanned units. This defense has some question marks on the defensive line and linebacker but is strong on the edge and in the secondary. As was the case with the Rams with defensive tackle Aaron Donald and cornerback Jalen Ramsey, Barry will have a premier pass rusher with Za’Darius Smith and an elite cornerback with Jaire Alexander.
Can Barry get Preston Smith and Kevin King back on track? Can he resuscitate Josh Jackson’s career? Can he turn first-round pick Eric Stokes into an instant-impact corner? Can he get the defense to play better in key moments and avoid NFC Championship Game-style blunders? If so, a defense that ranked ninth in yards allowed in 2020 and ninth in points allowed in 2019 could go from good to championship-worthy.
“He’s an unbelievable teacher – not just our position group but the defense as a whole,” Rams linebacker Troy Reeder told Packer Central. “He had a great understanding of offenses. Just really felt prepared with him as our coach week in and week out. And just a great guy. The Packers will be lucky to have him. I’m sure all the players are going to love him. I wish him nothing but the best.”
20-Yard Pass Differential in 2020
Tampa Bay: 67 for, 46 against – plus-23.
Buffalo: 66 for, 44 against – plus-22.
Green Bay: 57 for, 39 against – plus-18.
Houston: 69 for, 52 against – plus-17.
Kansas City: 69 for, 53 against – plus-16.
L.A. Rams: 50 for, 36 against – plus-14.
San Francisco: 55 for, 44 against – plus-11.
L.A. Chargers: 54 for, 44 against – plus-10.