GREEN BAY — Energy.
Every one of them used that word. Adrian Amos. Preston Smith. Krys Barnes. Kenny Clark. Dean Lowry. Rashan Gary. Darnell Savage. Eric Stokes. And, yes, Jaire Alexander. Every single one of them.
If you play defense for the Green Bay Packers, and if you were asked during training camp to describe what defensive coordinator Joe Barry is like, you mentioned the 51-year-old Barry’s energy.
And then there was Alexander, the Packers’ elite cornerback, who took the description one step further, sharing a story from an early-in-camp defensive meeting.
“Describe him? Man, Joe Barry, he brings a different kind of energy. A very positive and just a bunch of energy. We all feed off of that,” Alexander said that afternoon. “Some days, when we don’t have any energy, Joe Barry will hype us up and he’ll give us the energy. The other day, in the defensive meeting room, he showed us an example of him tackling the air and he hit the ground and tackled the air. It was amazing to see. He got right back up. His (reading) glasses were still on the shirt. It was cool, man.”
Asked a few days later whether he had indeed tackled the air, as Alexander had said, Barry replied, “I did. Thanks, Jaire.”
Perhaps Barry’s energetic coaching style is on the tip of so many of his players’ tongues because it’s a departure from his predecessor, Mike Pettine, who was serious and stern but also intellectual and pragmatic during his three-year run as coordinator. And it’s definitely different than the approach the grandfatherly, professorial Dom Capers used late in his nine-year tenure.
“They’re a great group of guys. I don’t want to say it’s been easy, but they’ve been a great group to work with,” Barry said. “My biggest thing is I want consistency. I think consistency starts with me, with me with the staff, with me with the players. I just want to be the same person every single day. There’s nothing worse than when you go to work and you’re walking down the hallway approaching a guy and you have no idea on Monday if he’s going to be great or on Tuesday he’s going to walk right by you.
“I try to approach every day exactly the same way. I think I’m fairly passionate and energetic just by nature in my personality. The way I coach, the way I come to work every day, it’s not a conscious thing. It’s just me being me. But I firmly believe, ‘Let’s be consistent and let’s bring energy.’ And hopefully that translates, from a player standpoint, to great effort.”
That’s great, but as many a coach has said over the years, don’t confuse effort with results. And that’s what matters now, starting with Sunday’s regular-season opener against the Hurricane Ida-displaced New Orleans Saints at TIAA Bank Field, the home of the Jacksonville Jaguars — results.
And not even coach Matt LaFleur, who hired Barry after parting ways with Pettine and being unable to lure University of Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard north from Madison, can say for certain how good Barry’s defense will be.
“I think that’s always the magic question,” said LaFleur, who intentionally held out virtually every starter on both sides of the ball during the team’s three preseason games — even with Barry installing a new system that contains similarities to Pettine’s and Capers’ schemes but is decidedly different at the same time.
“But I think even if they were playing in the preseason when there’s not as much game plan, it’s always kind of an unknown. So, until you get them out there in those regular-season games, I don’t think (we can know). I think we’ll know after that first game where we think we are. But until then, I think that’s always kind of an unknown.”
In the wake of the team’s 31-26 loss to the eventual Super Bowl LV-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Championship Game at Lambeau Field, LaFleur took several days to decide to move on from Pettine, whose contract was expiring.
Under Pettine, the Packers defense finished the 2020 regular season ranked ninth in the NFL in total defense (334.0 yards per game) — the first time they’d finished in the top 10 since 2010, when they won Super Bowl XLV — and tied for 13th in scoring defense (23.1 points per game).
Pettine, who was originally hired by former coach Mike McCarthy in 2018, was retained by LaFleur after LaFleur’s hiring in January 2019. The 2019 Packers finished 18th in total defense (352.6 yards per game) and ninth in scoring defense (19.6 points per game), while the 2018 group was 18th in total defense (354.4 yards per game) and 22nd in scoring defense (25.0 points per game).
Although the Packers moved on from Pettine, the position coaches all returned on defense.
Barry, meanwhile, came to the Packers having been an NFL defensive coordinator twice before, spending two years running the Detroit defense (2008, 2009) and two years running Washington’s (2015, 2016).
The Lions finished last in the 32-team NFL both of those seasons in both total defense and scoring defense, including the 2008 team going 0-16 under coach Rod Marinelli, Barry’s father-in-law. Washington’s defenses under Barry finished 28th in total defense each of those two years, with the 2015 defense ranking No. 17 in scoring defense and the 2016 unit ranking No. 19. But when LaFleur hired him, Barry said he was proud of the “scars” those experiences left because they made him a better coach than he was then.
Whether he is or not remains to be seen. But he certainly has better talent than he had on those defenses, and the defense he’s running has become a league-wide phenomenon thanks to the success Denver Broncos coach Vic Fangio and new Los Angeles Chargers coach Brandon Staley had as coordinators running the scheme.
Now it’s up to him to put those pieces together and take them to a level Pettine could not.
“I believe in him,” said Smith, who played for Barry in Washington and is coming off a disappointing 2020 season in which he recorded just four sacks after registering 12 sacks in 2019. “You can’t judge people off their past. I’m still Preston Smith. (But) 2019, last year — which one do you want to judge me off of? You can’t. You’re going to judge me off what I do this year.
“Regardless of his past as a coordinator, I don’t keep up with statistics. I just keep up with what you’re doing now. Right now, I like what he has going on. I like what we have going on. I like the energy he brings. I like the system.”
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Check out photo galleries from every game of 2021 from the preseason through the end of the regular season and the playoffs.
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