So much for Joe Barry’s energy.
The Green Bay Packers’ new defensive coordinator has won the praises of his players and bosses for the enthusiasm he exudes in his job. But the players on his side of the ball displayed none of that energy in the Packers’ shocking 38-3 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.
To be fair, the Packers weren’t ready to play on either side of the ball. Sometimes the X’s and O’s matter, but other times it’s about mentality. And in this game, it was all about the teams’ psychological states. The Saints were hungry and active and played fast. The Packers were not and did none of those things.
It’s easy to pin the Packers’ listless and mistake-prone performance on coach Matt La- Fleur’s decision to sit almost all his starters for all three preseason games.
While that can’t be dismissed as a factor, the Los Angeles Rams, coached by LaFleur mentor Sean McVay, also had 30-plus inactives for those games even though he was breaking in a new quarterback. The result? The Rams opened with a dominating 34-14 win over the Chicago Bears.
The Packers’ flat performance falls on the entire coaching staff—it’s La- Fleur’s and the staff’s job to keep the players grounded. But it was most obvious on the defensive side, where everyone in the front seven except Kenny Clark too often played like their feet were in concrete. The secondary got caught flat-footed and too often was a step slow as well.
No better than Pettine’s
Really, the Packers’ run defense looked no better than the liability it was the last two seasons under former coordinator Mike Pettine. Saints running backs Alvin Kamara and Tony Jones Jr. combined for 133 yards rushing on 31 carries (a 4.3-yard average). That was a huge factor in the Saints putting together long drives that kept Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense off the field in the first half, when the Saints built their 17-3 lead.
If Pettine’s defense occasionally appeared unsound because linemen shot gaps, Barry’s defense Sunday simply got pushed around up front.
Defensive end Dean Lowry, for instance, often was worked over by one of the game’s best right tackles, Ryan Ramczyk. Another defensive end, Kingsley Keke, looked good at times, but at others got his feet too close together—and without a solid, wide base was too easily washed out of the point of attack.
On the Saints’ 7½-minute, 15-play touchdown drive in the second quarter, for instance, Jones picked up 6 yards when guard Andrus Peat created a big hole by moving Keke over one gap, and a few plays later Kamara picked up 8 yards running behind Ramczyk against Lowry.
Among the issues against the pass was Rashan Gary twice losing outside contain as a pass rusher and allowing Saints quarterback Jameis Winston to escape the pocket for big scrambles: an 11-yarder on the game’s third play, and later in the first quarter on a third-and-8 that allowed Winston to scramble around the edge for a 10-yard gain that kept a touchdown drive alive.
Inside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell looked good at times, but he appeared primarily responsible for the 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Juwan Johnson by biting hard on a run fake. That left Johnson uncovered in the back of the end zone, and though safety Adrian Amos was a little slow to react and help out, the coverage still was Campbell’s responsibility.
Secondary off the mark
The Packers also struggled with communication issues and slow reactions in the secondary.
Safety Henry Black was slow to rotate over the top to help Kevin King on a signature call in Barry’s defense, and Deonte Harris was left open downfield for a 55-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.
One of the staples of Barry’s Brandon Staley defense is lining up as often as possible with two deep safeties, then rotating them into other looks just as the ball is snapped to make things harder on the quarterback. King looked bad on the long touchdown, but the responsibility lies with Black. He had to be faster rotating over to help when the safety on that side (Amos) rotated to coverage underneath. If the Packers can’t execute that, they’re going to have a hard time playing the Staley defense that LaFleur hired Barry to run.
King and Chandon Sullivan also showed a lack of awareness when they collided on a pick play that left Johnson uncovered for an 8-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter.
Bakhtiari’s absence felt
The Packers missed injured left tackle David Bakhtiari, but not for the reason you might suspect.
Elgton Jenkins was just fine as a pass blocker in Bakhtiari’s absence, but taking Jenkins out of his usual spot at left guard hurt the Packers’ run game. Jenkins is the Packers’ best run blocker, and his athleticism getting out to the linebacker level is a big help to the run game.
If the Packers are to be among the league’s best offenses again this year, they have to run the ball effectively. Their scheme is based on forcing teams to honor the run and keep them guessing whether a play is a run or pass, because the formations all look the same.
But LaFleur had almost no run game to speak of Sunday—the Packers averaged only 2.9 yards a carry on 15 runs, and their long run was 8 yards. Not having Jenkins at guard was a big factor, because his replacement, Lucas Patrick, isn’t nearly as athletic.
You also have to wonder why LaFleur didn’t stick with the hot hand when AJ Dillon picked up 12 yards on back-to-back carries early in the second quarter. But Aaron Rodgers was sacked on the next play—whether the pass was La- Fleur’s call or a Rodgers audible isn’t clear—and the Packers ended up punting a couple of plays later.
Then on the next series, Aaron Jones was back in the game. Dillon had but two more carries the rest of the day.