GREEN BAY, Wis. – Joe Barry and De’Vondre Campbell have changed the Green Bay Packers’ defense.
In 2019 under former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, the Packers played their dime defense – six defensive backs – on a league-high 49.8 percent of the defensive snaps. In 2020, Pettine trotted out his dime package on a league-high 48.8 percent of the defensive snaps.
After leading units that ranked ninth in scoring in 2019 and ninth in total defense in 2020 en route to back-to-back NFC Championship Game appearances, Pettine and coach Matt LaFleur went their separate ways. LaFleur hired Joe Barry as coordinator. One big change Barry instituted was how he has implemented his personnel. Heading into Monday night’s game, the Packers had cut back their dime usage to 20.2 percent, according to SportRadar. That’s still the seventh-highest rate in the NFL but much more in line with the league average of 12.3 percent.
Some of the change is philosophical. The biggest change is the addition of Campbell in June. With uncommon size and veteran savvy, the Packers have the all-around linebacker they’ve lacked for years and years.
In Sunday’s victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Campbell turned in his third consecutive excellent performance. After 13 tackles against Detroit in Week 2 and 11 tackles against San Francisco in Week 3, he recorded nine tackles, one quarterback hit (to help thwart a third-and-5) and one pass breakup (to stop a third-and-5) vs. Pittsburgh. One play after defending a pass to receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, Campbell gave up a catch to Smith-Schuster but stopped him well short of the first down.
“Yeah, he was all over the field,” coach Matt LaFleur said on Monday. “He’s wearing a lot of hats for us. He’s obviously the guy communicating out there, but he’s in all those different personal groupings and asked to fill multiple responsibilities. We’re lucky we have him. He’s definitely been productive. But he’s also been a great asset to our locker room. He’s earned the respect of his teammates. That was a really great pickup for us.”
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Campbell is the linebacker the Packers had lacked. From 2017 through 2019, no player in the NFL recorded as many tackles as Blake Martinez. But Martinez’s limitations made him a liability at times, and the Packers lacked an athletic sidekick. Thus, at every opportunity, Pettine pulled the other linebacker in favor of an extra defensive back.
“A wise coach told me a long time ago you can fly to Miami a lot faster than you can walk there,” Pettine said early in the 2019 season about prioritizing pass defense over run defense. “You’re going to get beat through the air. That’s the bottom line.”
With Campbell, the Packers have a linebacker who’s actually an asset against the pass. And that’s allowed Barry to line up with two linebackers instead of a sixth defensive back. That’s meant better run defense – 4.29 yards per carry this season compared to 4.55 in 2020 and 4.67 in 2019 – while not giving away yards through the air.
“Every game’s a little bit different,” LaFleur said on Friday when asked about the diminished dime snaps. “Certainly, we have that in our arsenal and we’ll pull it out when need be, but when you get another linebacker in here with the caliber that Dre can play at, I think that definitely changes things a little bit. But I think more specifically I would say it’s all predicated on who you’re playing and the game plan.”
That’s true. In Week 1, with a matchup against New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara, Barry went with his dime defense on 32.7 percent of the defensive snaps. In Week 2 against the receiver-poor Lions, Barry cut that back to 6.7 percent.
According to Pro Football Focus, among linebackers with 100 snaps, Campbell ranks second with 5.1 yards allowed per catch and seventh with 13 stops (a solo tackle that results in an offensive failure). He’s missed just two tackles. Three passes to receivers on Sunday resulted in just 2 yards.
“Speed, leadership and confidence” is what Campbell, a sixth-year pro who’s up to 74 career starts, has brought to the defense, Rashan Gary said. “That’s a guy who walked in the building, studied his butt off, got the plays and started making the plays right away. Me coming into Year 3 and seeing a player that’s just able to do that, it was like a ‘Wow’ moment. Now, just me playing with him, it’s like, ‘Oh, we getting 15 tackles here? Oh, we filling up the gap?’ Oh, yeah, I love playing with this guy.’ He’s bringing the juice, flying around and making us a better defense.”