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24 Days Until Training Camp: Is Defense Overhyped?

It’s true: The Green Bay Packers’ defense could be great. But here’s the truth: The defense was far from great down for a key chunk of last season.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – With Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, the Green Bay Packers’ defense has always played second fiddle. Taken the back seat. Been the ugly duckling.

That’s not the case with the 2022 NFL season on the horizon. While the offseason trade of Davante Adams created serious questions for an offense that was overwhelmed by the 49ers in the playoffs, expectations are incredibly high for a defense that dominated that postseason matchup.

On paper, general manager Brian Gutekunst has assembled a powerful defense. If everyone’s healthy, there are no weak links. Pro Bowler Kenny Clark anchors the defensive line. All-Pro De’Vondre Campbell leads the inside linebackers. Rashan Gary and Preston Smith provide a formidable one-two punch at outside linebacker. Jaire Alexander, Rasul Douglas and Eric Stokes could be the NFL’s finest trio of cornerbacks. Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage form a strong tandem at safety. First-round picks were used on linebacker Quay Walker and defensive tackle Devonte Wyatt, and defensive tackle Jarran Reed was added in free agency.

“It’s going to be scary,” Gary said. “Once we get our communication down and we’re all on the same page, it’s going to be good.”

“Just nasty,” Alexander said.

“We’re trying to be the best defense,” Douglas said. “I think we’ve got the pieces.”

Douglas nailed it. The Packers do have the pieces. And trying to be the “best” defense is a worthy goal. It will be about mindset to make it happen. The Packers can’t just expect to put their helmets on and overwhelm the Vikings in Week 1 or have Tom Brady reconsider his unretirement in Week 3.

Here’s the thing: Green Bay’s powerful playoff performance hides the fact that the defense really wasn’t that good last season.

Over the final seven games of last season, the Packers allowed 28-plus points five times – tied for the worst in the NFL. When Joe Barry’s defense should have been peaking, it ranked a woeful 28th in points allowed down the stretch. No team allowed more touchdown passes. It finished 24th in total defense, 22nd on third down and 28th in yards allowed per carry.

To be sure, a healthy Alexander should change the math. An All-Pro in 2020, Alexander missed most of the 2021 season with a shoulder injury. Reed and Wyatt should improve the defensive line, and a Campbell-Walker pairing at inside linebacker could be formidable.

But Campbell had never been an elite linebacker and Douglas had never been an above-average cornerback. Were they one-year wonders or can repeat performances be expected?

There are obvious questions about the draft picks, too. The NFL Draft is a notoriously fickle thing. There’s no guarantee Walker – who wasn’t exactly a playmaker at Georgia – will be an upgrade over Krys Barnes. There’s no guarantee Wyatt won’t be pushed around by NFL blockers.

Will the defense be better with Barry due to experience or worse because opponents will have had the offseason to study tendencies?

“We’ve got to play a game first, but we’ve got all the pieces,” Alexander said.

It will be up to Barry to assemble those pieces into a consistently strong unit. The potential is there. From Week 6 at Chicago through Week 10 against Seattle, the Packers allowed just 11.6 points per game. Things went off the rails from there, only for the defense to deliver a masterpiece against the 49ers to end 2021 and fuel expectations for 2022.

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If it all comes together, the defense won’t play second fiddle. It will be the leader of the band that marches to the Super Bowl.

“Daily excellence is our goal,” Barry said at the start of OTAs. “I tell the defense all the time, if you can walk out of this building 1 percent better than you walked in it – and it sounds maybe kind of corny or cheesy – but I think if you take that mentality every single day …

“I think it’s so great that we have guys that, they look back at last year and even though from a team standpoint it was brutal, devastating, we didn’t hoist the Lombardi Trophy, so in our mind it’s a failure as a team, but when you do look at the specifics of the way we played, we played good. But our goal is to play great and our goal is to play great every single week, and we got a bunch of guys in that locker room that have that mindset and we’re chomping at the bit to get started.”

NFC North Insiders

Get ready for the 2022 NFL season with our 12-part NFC North Insiders series, with stories running every Saturday and Sunday until training camp.

Part 1: Team MVPs for each team on both sides of the ball.

Part 2: The biggest addition and loss for each team.

Part 3: Most overrated player for each team.

Part 4: Most underrated player for each team.

Part 5: Best-case scenarios

Part 6: Worst-case scenarios

Countdown to Packers Training Camp

Part 1 (30 days): All Matt LaFleur does is win (in the regular season)

Part 2 (29 days): Dominant Rasul Douglas

Part 3 (28 days): Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon

Part 4 (27 days): 27 is the magic number

Part 5 (26 days): Rich Bisaccia’s brilliance on special teams

Part 6 (25 days): Aaron Rodgers vs. the NFC North