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Why hasn’t the Green Bay Packers’ defense lived up to expectations?

It’s hard to play defense in the NFL.

Almost every rule change the league institutes favors the offense.

One common phrase casually tossed around is that defense wins championships. In the modern NFL, that simply isn’t true.

Kansas City has played in three of the last four Super Bowls, and none of those teams would be confused with one that had a great defense.

The final score of last year’s Super Bowl was 38-35.

A team likely cannot have a defense as poor as the 2011 Packers and win a championship, but it’s more important in the modern NFL to be good on offense.

The Packers have been among the best in the league on that side of the ball. Aaron Rodgers won four league MVPs. They had one of the top offenses in football in 2011, 2014 and 2020. It’s not coincidental that those are three of Rodgers’ MVP seasons.

Why didn’t they win a title in any of those years? The blame usually shifts to the defense.

That’s been a fair criticism.

Rodgers had a top-five defense once in his career in Green Bay. It won the Super Bowl that season.

It plummeted to 32nd the following year. Rodgers won the MVP, but it wasn’t enough as it was dispatched by the Giants in the playoffs.

There were a litany of playoff embarrassments in the Rodgers era. All three phases were to blame at one point or another but, more often than not, it was the defense that spoiled a potential Super Bowl run.

Colin Kaepernick shredded the Packers on two occasions. Larry Fitzgerald ran through the secondary in overtime. Julio Jones continued to run by LaDarius Gunter in an NFC Championship Game.

Perhaps Rodgers’ first playoff game, at the Arizona Cardinals in 2009, should have been looked at as a sign of things to come. The defense gave up 45 points. Kurt Warner had more touchdown passes (five) than incompletions (four).

Whatever issues exist on defense, they are not due to lack of investment.

Perhaps you’ve heard by this point the Packers haven’t selected a pass-catcher in the first round since 2002. Save for Jordan Love, the Packers have not drafted an offensive player in the first round since offensive tackle Derek Sherrod in 2011.

The Packers relied on Rodgers and the offense to be great during his time as the starting quarterback.

Last year was supposed to be the year that roles reversed. Following the trade of Davante Adams to Las Vegas, the defense was supposed to help carry them while they found their way on offense.

Joe Barry’s unit was armed with seven first-round picks. Every starter on the defense in 2022 was either a first-round pick or someone they had invested in in free agency.

It wasn’t to be. The defense struggled out of the gate. They found themselves late in the season, but that success didn’t come against a murderer’s row of quarterbacks.

The same questions emerged when the Packers took Lukas Van Ness with the 13th overall pick in this year’s draft.

Is this finally the year everything comes together for the defense?

Perhaps a more logical question is, why hasn’t it already?

Their rankings since the Super Bowl season by Pro Football Outsiders’ DVOA:

2011: 26th

2012: 8th

2013: 31st

2014: 16th

2015: 9th

2016: 22nd

2017: 24th (Dom Capers fired)

2018: 29th (Mike Pettine hired)

2019: 15th

2020: 17th (Mike Pettine fired)

2021: 22nd (Joe Barry hired)

2022: 20th

Since winning the Super Bowl, the Packers have had just two seasons (2012, 2015) when they finished in the top 10. They finished inside the top half of the league on just two other occasions (15th in 2019 and 16th in 2014).

So why hasn’t it worked?


Whenever someone is injured, the players and coaching staff always talk about the next man up. Sometimes, that means Charlie Peprah is filling in for Morgan Burnett, as was the case in 2010.

The issue is when there is no viable next man up.

Nick Perry was drafted to be the Robin to Clay Matthews’ Batman. He missed 31 games during his tenure in Green Bay. Perry had some nice moments when he was healthy, but those days were few and far between.

Matthews, a Pro Bowler five of his first six seasons, terrorized opposing quarterbacks when healthy. However, Matthews fought through lower-body injuries throughout his career, which sapped him of some of the explosiveness.

Jaire Alexander missed most of the 2021 season. B.J. Raji missed the entire 2014 season. They famously ran out of cornerbacks during the 2016 season, which ended with the undrafted Gunter trying to cover the Hall of Fame-bound Jones. Kevin King, infamously drafted ahead of T.J. Watt with the first pick in 2017, played in 51 of a possible 80 games in five seasons.

Since 2012, the Packers have ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost five times, though they’ve been much more fortunate under Matt LaFleur with two top-10 seasons and never worse than 17th.

Clunky Fits/Poor Decisions

The selection of Perry is a good place to start. He’d never played as an outside linebacker in college. The Packers took him, anyway, and asked him to learn on the fly.

That’s just one of several examples of the Packers trying to fit square pegs into round holes, whether from personnel or coaching.

Everything leads back to poor decision-making that has come back to haunt them.

In 2014, the Packers finished 16th in Defensive DVOA. Their defense was powered by their pass rushers and defensive backs. Matthews, Julius Peppers, Mike Daniels and Mike Neal all had at least 4.5 sacks as the team finished with 41.

Their secondary had four starting-caliber cornerbacks with Casey Hayward and Micah Hyde manning the slot with Tramon Williams and Sam Shields on the outside.

That defense got even stronger in 2015 with everyone back in the fold save for Williams, who was replaced by first-round pick Damarious Randall. They finished ninth in defensive DVOA.

After the 2015 season, Hayward was allowed to leave via free agency. Hyde left the year after.

Both players blossomed after leaving Green Bay. Hayward became a premier corner while Hyde was a second-team All-Pro in 2017 and 2021.

Hayward was allowed to walk due to strong rookie seasons from Randall and Quinten Rollins. Ultimately, neither player panned out.

Randall had a promising rookie season as a boundary corner, but was drafted to be a slot corner or safety. He was benched and asked to leave a game early in 2017, then was traded to Cleveland as part of the deal for quarterback DeShone Kizer. Rollins’ athletic limitations ultimately manifested themselves. He was released before the 2018 season and never played in another game.

Datone Jones was drafted after the Packers were gashed by Kaepernick and the 49ers in 2012. With the next pick, the Texans selected receiver DeAndre Hopkins.

Poor Run Defense

This is a trend that dates to Ted Thompson, but it certainly has been exacerbated under Brian Gutekunst and Matt LaFleur.

Since Gutekunst took over as general manager in 2018, the Packers are last in the NFL in EPA per play against the run.

Former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine famously said a team would get to Miami – home of that year’s Super Bowl – faster flying than by walking. That was the philosophy in Green Bay at the time, and it’s the approach Gutekunst has taken to team building.

In six drafts, Gutekunst has used one top-100 pick on a defensive lineman, Devonte Wyatt.

In LaFleur and Gutekunst’s first year together, the Packers reached the 2019 NFC Championship Game but were gashed by 49ers running back for Raheem Mostert for 220 yards and four touchdowns. It was the first 200-yard, four-touchdown game in playoff history.

The Packers did not draft a defensive lineman. They didn’t sign one in free agency. They did something they’ve done far too often: trust the players they had in house.

The run defense got a little better in 2020, finishing 18th in Defensive DVOA. They still weren’t able to make a stop in the NFC Championship Game when the whole world knew Tampa Bay was going to run the ball.

Lowlighted by the Eagles embarrassing the Packers for 363 rushing yards last season, the third-worst game in franchise history, the Packers finished 31st in DVOA against the run last year.

That simply isn’t good enough, and it’s a trend that dates to former defensive coordinators Capers and Pettine. It’s a philosophy issue.

Two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kenny Clark and position coach Jerry Montgomery claim it’s a mindset.

“We had a great conversation in our room a couple of weeks ago,” Montgomery said. “We are watching Kenny do it, and then we are watching other guys try to do it, and they’re being taught the same thing, but it’s in the mindset in which you do it. Kenny is trying to knock your head off across from you every single time while these other guys are just trying to the technique.”

If it’s as simple as changing the mindset, the Packers need to fix that going into this season, otherwise their defense will struggle again.

The Packers have built their defense around stopping the pass. That’s a good idea in theory, but legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau used to say that good defenses earned their right to rush the passer.

The Packers have a plethora of pass rushers but they gave up nearly 6 yards per play on first down a season ago. It’s hard for those players to earn the right to rush the quarterback when more than half of the required yardage is given up on one down.

The Packers are counting on their defense to lead the way in 2023. They were counting on that last season, and they failed. For the defense to finally play to its potential, it starts with the most basic premise of football. Slow down an opponent’s run game.


Capers and Pettine were established defensive coaches when they got to Green Bay.

Capers, whose defense finished second in scoring during the Super Bowl season, coordinated the best defenses Green Bay has had since 2011. By the end of his tenure, though, it was clear there was a need for a new voice. The Packers were a team that relied on youth. Capers’ system is complex and needed veteran voices. This was a disconnect between the front office and the coaching staff.

Pettine was brought in by Mike McCarthy and retained by LaFleur. His hiring was defensible, even if the end result wasn’t what everyone wanted.

The hiring that continues to be a head scratcher is Barry. The Packers had offered the job to Jim Leonhard but had to pivot when he decided to remain in Madison to coach the Wisconsin Badgers’ defense.

LaFleur turned to Barry, who he worked with on Sean McVay’s staff in Los Angeles. Barry never has coordinated a defense that’s finished above 22nd in defensive DVOA, and that happened in Green Bay in 2021.

The other candidate was Ejiro Evero. Evero is now one of the highest-paid defensive coordinators in the NFL with Carolina after two excellent seasons in Denver.

Barry is likely coaching for his job. There will be no excuses. Outside of safety, the defense is loaded with talent. Ten of the 11 starters will be a first-round pick or someone they gave significant money to in free agency.

After a season in which they did not make the playoffs, LaFleur kept most of his coaching staff together. He stuck his neck out for Barry.

Barry needs to prove him right, or this could be a consequential decision that extends beyond just the coordinator.

Bad Luck In Big Moments

Under LaFleur, the defense has suffered from some bad luck.

They were lights-out against San Francisco in the divisional round in 2021. They only yielded six points and didn’t give up an offensive touchdown. They made a stand on a fourth-and-1 that should have won the game. Instead, a blocked punt allowed the 49ers to tie the score and the Packers’ offense continued to sputter.

Instead of a performance for the ages, the defense’s prowess became a footnote.

In the 2020 NFC Championship Game against Tampa Bay, a long touchdown just before halftime put the Packers in a 21-10 hole, and an Aaron Jones fumble set up a touchdown that made it 28-10.

Hope appeared to be lost. Instead, the defense rebounded. It gave up three points the rest of the game and intercepted the legendary Tom Brady on three consecutive possessions. Two of which came with the team trailing by one possession, but the offense couldn’t capitalize and the Packers’ best chance to go to the Super Bowl since 2014 was wasted.

Speaking of 2014: In the NFC Championship Game at Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, the defense recorded four interceptions and five sacks. However, the offense turned five takeaways into six points before an all-phases meltdown of epic proportions.

The defense has had its share of bad moments since the team won the Super Bowl, but there have been other instances where it’s done enough.


Overall, the Packers have made a significant investment in fixing a defense that generally has not been good enough.

The team has now moved on Rodgers. It would be unfair to expect Love to cover up all the warts like Rodgers did over the years.

It’s time for the defense to provide a return on the investment the team has made on that side of the ball. If it doesn’t, it could be a long year in Titletown.

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