Week 15 of the 2023 season is staring the Green Bay Packers in the face and their defensive ranking is in the bottom third of the league. Their run defense is even worse. Only the Broncos and Cardinals have given up more rushing yards than the Packers.
In an article this week [paywall] in, “The Milwaukee Journal”, co-authored by Pete Dougherty and former player and analyst Eric Baranczyk, the focus is on coach Joe Barry’s failure to get solid production out of his talent. The article focuses on the use of linebackers Quay Walker and De’Vondre Campbell. The authors correctly acknowledge that Campbell is slowing down, not making plays he used to make.
Quay Walker as a Liability
In an interesting admission, the authors acknowledge that Walker is a liability on runs between the tackles. Walker was the appointed savior draft pick for the run defense in 2022.
He was the first inside linebacker taken in that draft. In 2021 the Packers defense ranked in the top 15 overall but was next to last in rushing yards allowed per attempt, giving up 4.7 yards per carry according to Pro Football Reference. In 2022, Walker started, and struggled from the opening snap.
The defense gave up 520 additional rushing yards on the season in 2022 compared to 2021 and averaged a whopping 5.0 yards per run. While there were other problems with the defense last year, it was clear Walker was not making a significant impact.
His one knock in college, his ability to quickly diagnose and attack, haunts him to this day. Walker is a big athlete with elite size and speed for his position, but on too many plays he sits in place watching the play develop and by the time he begins to move an opposing offensive lineman has him walled off.
There are also plays where Walker seems satisfied to be blocked, by lineman or tight ends, giving little resistance. So far in 2023 the Packers are giving up 4.6 yards a carry, that lands them in the top three for rushing yards allowed.
Dougherty and Baranczyk go further to ding Barry for using De’Vondre Campbell instead of Walker as a pass defender. On many plays against Tampa Bay, Barry used Campbell as the primary linebacker in coverage, making Walker the primary run defender. Campbell was burned repeatedly in coverage and their suggestion was that Barry failed by not switching the younger healthier Walker with Campbell in coverage.
But they fail to mention the first explosive pass play where Walker had coverage. On the Buccaneers third play from scrimmage, Walker was assigned to cover running back Rachaad White out of the backfield. Walker could not stay with White, giving up a catch and run of 24 yards that resulted in the winning game strategy for Tampa Bay; throw to the receiver being covered by either Packer linebacker.
Walker had another chance to show his coverage skills but again, failed. In the 4th quarter, the Packers had allowed Tampa Bay into the red zone once again. The Buccaneers sent Ko Kieft, a 265-pound backup tight end, into the flat. Kieft ran the 40-yard dash in 4.98 seconds in his pro day workout.
Walker was drafted in the first round in part because of his impressive 4.52 forty. On Sunday, Walker, with all that impressive speed, was slow to diagnose the play, came over late, and although he hit Kieft on the one-yard line, could not keep him out of the end zone.
Dougherty and Baranczyk note on another play that Walker seemed to commit an error by not shifting over, even though Campbell was emphatically waving to him to shift. In his Monday press conference Coach LaFleur emphasized the breakdowns in the defense, focusing his critique on players not communicating and misalignments that were fundamental basic breakdowns. LaFleur was quoted as saying,
“Basic install, like Day 1 install and we have self-inflicted communication errors and guys quite frankly not in the right spot,”
Walker had one of the lowest reported Wonderlic scores in the draft, a score of 9. Devin Lloyd, the next inside linebacker off the board in the 2022 draft scored a 20. Lloyd’s Jaguars defense has problems of their own but a 4.2 yard per run average and nearly 900 fewer total rushing yards sounds like it would be welcome in Green Bay.
Joe Barry’s Future
Joe Barry could call the greatest game in the history of the NFL, but if you have players who can’t diagnose a play unfolding in front of them, they will fail. Coaches must teach players their defensive strategy in a way that is easy to understand and communicate both at practice and during a game.
Clearly, Barry’s defensive coaches failed to do that on Sunday. But if Barry deserves all the blame for the Tampa Bay loss, then he deserves credit for holding a defensive unit together while most of their starting secondary was sitting on the sidelines against the Chiefs, Lions and Chargers.
It is no coincidence that the defense’s best day was the second game against Detroit where Isaiah McDuffie had 11 tackles starting for Campbell. If Barry was able to slow quarterbacks like Mahoney, Goff, and Herbert, can we really pin all the blame on him for these last two losses?
Two frustrations obvious to most fans is Barry’s failure to change or mix schemes. Against New York, their rookie quarterback was escaping the four-man rush.
A spy or mixed blitz package never appeared on the field. Corey Ballentine has proven to be a solid tackler. He has never been sent on a blitz. Nor has Walker or Campbell.
If you are predictable in the NFL, you will get beat. The Packers have proven that two weeks in a row. The pass rushers led them to victory in three straight games. But teams have been scheming the Packers four man pass rush and have done enough to keep them from winning the last two games.
Throw in players coming back from injury, Campbell, Stokes, and Ford, and you add breakdowns. Perhaps the short week contributed, but players have to know their assignments.
Some players are drafted and make their coaches look good. Others play poorly and get coaches fired. Joe Barry’s defense gave up three straight touchdowns in the second half. Tampa had three scoring drives in the second half against Atlanta the week before, two touchdowns and a field goal.
They also had three scoring drives in the second half against Tennessee and four against Houston. Three against New Orleans. The Buc’s offensive coordinator is good at making second half adjustments. The problem for Packer fans is it didn’t look like Tampa Bay had to adjust at halftime.
More of the same. Don’t fix what’s not broke. The simplest of strategies courtesy of Joe Barry. So yes, there are legitimate gripes to be made about the defensive calls on Sunday.
But for a team that is playing with multiple starters out of their secondary, and multiple starters blowing basic assignments, don’t make the mistake in thinking that firing Barry is a solution. The Packers have been shuffling defensive coordinators searching for another Fritz Shurmur for decades.
But whoever runs the defense in 2024 still has the current roster to contend with. Campbell is probably in his last year. The secondary that had hoped to rely on injury riddled Eric Stokes, Jaire Alexander and Darnell Savage needs a complete overhaul. The Packers may have struck copper, if not silver or gold, in Owens, Ballentine and Valentine.
But a shutdown corner and a safety may be a draft day focus. The real question for 2024 will be Walker. Will the next coach see him as a savior, or a coach killer?