GREEN BAY — Jerry Gray has seen just about everything.
Having spent nine NFL seasons playing cornerback (and making four Pro Bowls) and now in his 25th season as an NFL coach (including two stints as a defensive coordinator), there isn’t a scheme the Green Bay Packers defensive backs coach/defensive passing-game coordinator hasn’t played in, coached or studied.
As Gray looks at where the Packers defense stands entering Sunday’s game against the Seattle Seahawks at Lambeau Field — Green Bay went into this week’s games ranked fifth in the NFL in total defense (321.2 yards per game) and sixth in scoring defense (20.0 points per game) — and contemplates how the unit got there, the answer is simple:
The Packers have frustrated opposing offenses to no end, depriving them of the kind of down-the-field big plays that they all seek.
“To me, whenever you listen to offensive guys, they want to take shots. They want big plays, they want chunk plays,” Gray said. “Everybody’s trying to find a way to get a ball over your head.”
Preventing big plays is hardly a novel concept. Every defensive coordinator wants to limit them, so in that way, Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry is just like everybody else.
With the Los Angeles Rams, Gray played for Fritz Shurmur, who later would coordinate the 1996 Packers’ No. 1-ranked defense that helped Brett Favre and offensive-oriented coach Mike Holmgren win Super Bowl XXXI. And way back then, in the late 1980s, Shurmur was talking about the importance of making offenses string together 10- or 12-play drives rather than shortcutting their way to the end zone.
“I mean, I was raised the same way with Fritz Shurmur when we were in L.A. Most teams don’t want to drive the ball 15 plays and score. They want the glorified touchdown,” Gray said. “(Shurmur) was like, ‘Somewhere along the line, if you make ‘em dink and dunk, they’re going to make a mistake. They’re going to take a shot and you’re going to get a chance to get an interception.’
“Teams don’t like that, but I think we’re doing a great job of understanding what this defense allows us to do and give us a chance, ‘You know what, make teams dink and dunk the ball. Don’t give up shots.’ And then you have a chance to win a lot of football games.”
And that’s most certainly by design. Through nine games, the Packers have allowed 22 passing plays of 20 yards or more, the seventh-fewest in the league. And five of those 22 plays came in the team’s 24-21 victory at Arizona on Oct. 28, when Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray had completions of 55, 29, 23, 22 and 20 yards.
“That’s kind of our style and our approach. We’re going to keep a nice umbrella and nice shell over the top of everything,” Barry said. “That’s kind of the way we approach every single week.
“We preach all the time, ‘Make them earn everything. Make them earn every blade of grass.’ It’s not a touchdown until they cross the goal line.”
When LaFleur parted ways with defensive coordinator Mike Pettine after last season, he cast a wide net for his next coordinator — and nearly hired a Pettine disciple, University of Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard. But LaFleur, knowing the league was trending toward this style defense from his preparation for the Packers’ offensive game plans, knew the challenges that scheme presented him and considered several candidates with backgrounds in the scheme — including Barry, who he worked with in Los Angeles with the Rams.
But amid the defense’s success this season, LaFleur opted to downplay the idea that it’s a function of the scheme. Rather, he pointed to the players who’ve brought the scheme to life, as he likes to say.
“Every scheme has its own benefits, and there’s drawbacks to every scheme as well,” LaFleur said. “Ultimately, it comes down to the guys on the field all being on the same page, knowing the details of whatever it is they’re asked to do, and then going out there and executing. Certainly, no matter what the scheme, when you have good players, it definitely makes you a better coach. That’s just the reality of the situation.
“Yeah, there was a lot to like about this system, just in preparing for it over the course of my career. … I wouldn’t say it’s the sole reason, but it certainly factored in.”
The keep-it-all-in-front-of-you approach the scheme espouses is certainly working. Green Bay’s defense entered the week ranked in the top 10 in the league in total yards per play allowed (5.27 yards, No. 5), passing yards per game allowed (210.4, No. 7), passing yards per play allowed (6.13, No. 5) and interception rate (2.91%, No. 9).
In addition, the Packers have allowed fewer than 23 points in six consecutive games, the longest streak in the NFL this season and the team’s longest since a six-game streak in 2010, the last time the Packers won the Super Bowl and the last time the team finished in the top 10 in scoring defense and total defense in the same season.
“Every scheme has a weakness, and offenses are really good at finding those,” safety Darnell Savage said. “I think the biggest thing for us is we’re limiting the big plays. If a team doesn’t necessarily have a ‘beater’ called up to beat the coverage that we’re in, we’re limiting that to, ‘OK, you got a couple yards, but it’s not a touchdown.’ Really, just making teams play the slow game and drive the ball down the field and really just getting it the hard way. I feel like we’re all doing our job and trying to minimize big plays, and I feel like it’s worked for us.
“I think the biggest thing we’re doing right now, we’re all just trusting each other. And when you trust your brother do their job, it’s easier to do your own.”
Savage’s running mate at safety, Adrian Amos, played in a similar scheme in Chicago under Vic Fangio, so he knows how it’s supposed to work. And while Barry’s version of the system differs from the one Fangio took from Chicago with him when he became the head coach at Denver. This season, Denver is sixth in the NFL in total defense (321.8 yards per game) and second in scoring defense (17.0 points per game).
“I think the scheme in itself, it depends on the personnel, too. It depends on what kind of guys you got (and) what you do best,” Amos explained. “The (Fangio and Barry) playbooks are different in the way you’re handling these types of routes, the way you’re handling these formations, what you’re calling in different situations. That’s where there’s a difference in in the styles or the different defenses.
“When I was (in Chicago) with Vic, we were a lot better when we had better players. Our last year (in 2018), that was the best roster we had on defense and we were the best defense in the league. I feel like right now, with our guys, the way we’re working together, we got the guys to be great. But we have to consistently do it each and every week. I feel like we’ve been pretty good so far, and I think we can get a lot better.”