Give Packers defensive boss Joe Barry credit for masterpiece game plan against Vikings
GREEN BAY – After watching the Green Bay Packers completely dismantle the Minnesota Vikings offense Sunday, holding star receiver Justin Jefferson to one catch for 15 yards, maybe everyone owes Joe Barry an apology.
Ninety percent of those who follow the Packers had Barry fired two months ago and were already talking about his replacement next season.
Before anyone excuses Barry for the previous transgressions his defense committed, it’s important to remember that the season that matters begins in two weeks and the Packers still aren’t guaranteed a ticket there.
BOX SCORE: Packers 41, Vikings 17
They will need an answer for the Detroit Lions offense, which came into this week ranked fourth in the NFL in yards and tied for sixth in points, and laid 41 points on the Chicago Bears on Sunday.
The Lions (8-8) have a better running game, a better offensive line and a hotter quarterback than the Vikings, who fell to 12-4 with the 41-17 loss to the Packers. They rank second in the NFL in fewest sacks allowed per play and are tied for the fewest turnovers committed this season.
So, the story of this year is not complete, and Barry’s performance will be judged on an entire season, not coming up big in back-to-back games against Minnesota’s and Miami’s high-powered offenses.
But give Barry and his staff credit for the game plan the Packers put together to hold Jefferson to the fewest catches and second fewest yards of his 49-game career. They gave the players a plan that gave them a chance to play the way they like to play – aggressively.
“He told everybody go out there and grab a man and that’s who you’ve got,” cornerback Rasul Douglas said. “You’ve got to win. That’s what all the league is about. Win your one-on-one.”
Packers mix up coverages and 'they just let us play'
Of course, it wasn’t as simple as playing man coverage the entire game.
It was a masterpiece because the Packers used man coverage, man coverage with two safeties over the top, half-man, half-zone coverage, and half two-deep and half quarters coverage to double Jefferson and limit the rest of his mates to 190 mostly harmless receiving yards before garbage time.
He let star cornerback Jaire Alexander match with Jefferson whenever it was within the parameters of the defensive call and told the rest of his defensive backs to go after the Vikings receivers. Everybody had a role in shutting down Jefferson, even inside linebacker Quay Walker and outside linebacker Preston Smith, who wound up occasionally covering him when he was in the slot.
“They just let us play,” Walker said of the coaches. “We have so much talent. It adds up.”
When the Packers played the Vikings in Week 1, they were passive and didn’t challenge Jefferson and Adam Thielen at the line of scrimmage very much. They were much more concerned with stopping running back Dalvin Cook and figured they could hold Jefferson down with zone coverage.
But communication in the secondary was a mess and it didn’t know how to deal with the crossing routes that challenged the combination coverages the Packers were playing.
“He was catching passes and nobody was on him,” Alexander said.
This time around, they were far more creative, and it resulted in more opportunities to take away the ball.
On a fourth-and-2 at the Packers 37, linebacker De’Vondre Campbell covered Jefferson short, Darnell Savage and Walker covered Thielen and quarterback Kirk Cousins forced the ball to tight end T.J. Hockenson. Douglas reached in and deflected the ball. Savage caught it in the air and returned the interception 75 yards for a touchdown.
Often, they tried to give Cousins a look down the field and then take it away with late safety help, so when he forced one to Thielen on a deep post early in the fourth quarter, safety Rudy Ford came over and picked it off.
Cousins had one other interception on a tipped ball and finished 18-of-31 for 205 yards with three interceptions for a 49.2 rating. He also lost a fumble when defensive lineman Kenny Clark sacked him and recovered the fumble.
“We did a good job switching things up,” said safety Adrian Amos, who had the other interception. “It wasn’t like we were just playing man. We were playing zone. We were just being sticky with what we had to do.
“I would say we had a great plan.”
Packers defensive backs point to preparation, communication as keys
Unlike many performances this season, the defense seemed to be on the same page. Amos said film study was exceptionally good and everyone had a good idea of what their role was. The communication between the players, he said, was a key to it all.
At the same time the secondary was executing its coverages against Jefferson, the front four was taking away Cook (nine carries for 27 yards) and keeping pressure on Cousins. The Packers had only four defensive linemen active, so the group knew they were going to play a lot of downs when only two of them were on the field and only four players total were rushing.
Barry hardly blitzed at all, counting on his front to apply the pressure. When the Vikings lost center Andrew Schlottmann (ankle) – who was filling in for injured starter Garrett Bradbury – and then right tackle Brian O’Neill (calf) left the game, the Packers were able to get in Cousins’ face.
With Dean Lowry on injured reserve, the Packers moved T.J. Slaton to nose tackle, Jarron Reed to end and Clark to three-technique. The 330-pound Slaton was too much for replacement center Chris Reed and wound up getting his hands on two Cousins passes – one which Amos intercepted – and making perhaps the biggest stop of the game on third-and-goal at the 1.
Slaton beat Reed and grabbed Cook by the jersey, holding him up just long enough for Amos and others to knock him back for a 1-yard loss. The Vikings had to settle for a field goal after getting the ball on the 1 following a blocked punt.
“We knew it was one of those games where we were going to have to hold up,” Clark said.
Once the Packers got ahead, the defensive line was able to tee off on Cousins. The goal was to pressure him up the middle and that’s exactly what Clark did on his sack and forced fumble.
All totaled, the defense sacked Cousins twice and knocked him down six other times.
“That’s the best way to cover guys,” Clark said. “If you want to cover guys, get hits on the quarterback. Once we started getting after the quarterback and getting him uncomfortable, it started getting tougher to make those throws.”
In the end, the Packers held Minnesota to 346 yards, but 138 of them came in the fourth quarter when they had their backups in the game. During their four-game winning streak, the Packers have forced 12 turnovers – nine interceptions and three fumbles – and had nine sacks.
They are playing like the defense they were supposed to be earlier this season. But there is at least one more game to go and the report card on Barry and his defense won’t be in until the year is over.