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Gray Brings Experience to Challenge vs. Cardinals

Green Bay Packers assistant coach Jerry Gray talks about replacing Joe Barry and the challenge of facing Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – Even under the best of circumstances, it would have been a challenge to replace defensive coordinator Joe Barry.

But these aren’t the best of circumstances. Not even close.

The Green Bay Packers, already dealing with the prolonged absences of All-Pro cornerback Jaire Alexander and Pro Bowl outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith, were struck with a triple-whammy. One, Barry tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday. Two, the Packers play on Thursday night at Arizona. Three, as coach Matt LaFleur noted, the Cardinals have “the best offense” in the NFL.

Fortunately for LaFleur, defensive backs coach/passing game coordinator Jerry Gray spent eight years as an NFL defensive coordinator – for the Buffalo Bills from 2001 through 2005 and the Tennessee Titans from 2011 through 2013. So, there will be a steady hand calling the plays.

“It helps a lot,” Gray said of that experience on Wednesday before the team hopped on a plane for Arizona. “I understand the situation of the game. I know how the situations go. I know what most teams are trying to do. And now it’s up to you to get the call to the guy who’s going to be making the call in the huddle. The biggest thing that we can do to help Dre (De’Vondre Campbell) out is to get the call in fast, so now those guys can turn around and see what’s happening and then make the necessary checks to where they can actually go play fast. The worst thing we could do is get the call in late so then, all of a sudden, you see panic, and then it hurts the rest of the defense.”

The last thing Green Bay’s defense needs are self-inflicted wounds coming from the sideline. Arizona is fourth in scoring, seventh in total offense, seventh in the red zone and eighth on third down.

Those numbers are the byproduct of an absolutely loaded offense that’s led by a quarterback with incredible physical tools.

Kyler Murray is the betting favorite to win MVP. In the league rankings, he is No. 1 in completion percentage, No. 4 in yards per attempt and No. 5 in touchdown percentage. That all adds up to a lofty 116.8 passer rating that is third in the NFL. The challenge becomes even more daunting once Murray’s game-breaking running ability is taken into consideration. In about two-and-a-half seasons, he’s rushed for 18 touchdowns. Eight of those covered at least 12 yards. Last season, Murray and Green Bay’s Aaron Jones both rushed for 52 first downs; Murray had 68 fewer rushes.

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“The biggest thing that we’ve got to do is make sure we try to keep him in the pocket,” Gray said. “He’s going to make some plays. The biggest thing we can’t do is get discouraged because he makes a run or two. We can’t give up big plays over our heads. The biggest thing we’ve got to do is make sure we contain him in the rush and we can’t be afraid to go get him.”

If not for COVID-19 likely to sideline Davante Adams, this game would have featured two of the elite receivers in the NFL. However, while Adams’ stats are also elite because he’s such an enormous focus of the passing game, DeAndre Hopkins’ numbers are rather ho-hum because the Cardinals have weapons everywhere. So, while Adams has 52 receptions and Allen Lazard is a distant second among receivers with 15, Hopkins’ 33 receptions lead a balanced attack of receiver Christian Kirk (30), running back Chase Edmonds (27), receiver Rondale Moore (26) and receiver A.J. Green (24). And that doesn’t include three-time Pro Bowl tight end Zach Ertz, who was acquired a couple weeks ago.

“You look at them and you look at Kansas City when Kansas City was rolling. You look at those guys and you say, ‘Man, what are you going to do coverage wise?’” Gray said.

The coaches came back to the office after Sunday’s victory over Washington to begin game-planning work for Arizona. Barry tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday but, working remotely, he’s been able to join the rest of the coaches in bringing that plan into focus.

“The best thing about 2020 is we got Zoom,” Gray said.

Gray usually coaches from the sideline but he said moving upstairs to get a broader view of the field is a consideration. He’s worked from both spots – the sideline in Buffalo and the coaches’ box at Tennessee. Regardless of location, Gray will call the plays to inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti, and Olivadotti will relay them to Campbell. Gray’s assistant, Ryan Downard, has picked up the slack with Gray having to shift his focus. Gray and Olivadotti, in particular, will be working with tandem to mesh Gray’s knowledge of the secondary with Olivadotti’s knowledge of the defensive line and linebackers.

Given all the challenges, the Packers are going with the it-takes-a-village approach.

“Somebody has to call the plays and I was fortunate enough to be that guy,” Gray said. “But the big thing is we got to let our guys know, ‘Hey, this is going to be a collective effort.’ It’s not going to be Jerry’s show. It’s going to be Jerry Montgomery, it’s going to be Mike Smith, it’s going to be R.D. It’s going to be K.O. Head coach want to chime in, hey, we want to win the football game.”

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