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Dougherty: When it comes to Packers stopping the run, Joe Barry's defensive scheme tops Mike Pettine's

In 2019, Mike Pettine summed up his defensive philosophy when he said, “You can fly to Miami a lot faster than you can walk there.”

That was the former Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator saying the NFL is a passing game, and if you’re going to win a Super Bowl, which was in Miami that season, you have to play good pass defense, whatever it takes.

The premise of Pettine’s successor with the Packers, Joe Barry, comes from a defensive system that starts with a similar premise. The architect, new Los Angeles Chargers’ coach Brandon Staley, put it this way last year in an interview with Robert Mays of The Athletic:

“My big belief system is one-on-ones in the run game and two-on-ones in the passing game,” he said.

In other words, Staley’s priority is to get extra players into pass coverage, and make-do against the run.

Yet, while both defenses are built on the belief that pass defense wins games and championships, they have very different approaches to defending the run. And if we’ve learned one thing from watching Barry’s defense this season, it’s that the Packers’ recurring issues stopping the run under Pettine were more about scheme and approach, and less about the players.

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That’s not to run down Pettine now that he’s gone. I was never in the camp that Pettine was a bad defensive coordinator. He was at least as good as most in this league.

But this season it’s become clear that what one offensive line coach in the league told me two years ago was true: The Rex Ryan-Pettine scheme sacrifices sound run defense for disruption and getting to the quarterback.

By the eyeball test, Barry’s run defense has been much better than Pettine’s, even if conventional stats don’t show a big difference. And that matters because the way you defend the run – how effectively, and the resources you put into it – directly affects your abilities to play the pass.

Here are the basic numbers against the run: Barry’s defense ranks No. 19 in the league in yards allowed per carry (4.3). Last year the Packers were 18th (4.5 yards), and in 2019 they were 26th (4.7 yards). Barry does rank better in rushing yards per game, No. 8 (102.5), as opposed to Pettine’s 13th (112.8) last year and 28th (120.1) in ’19.

But the proof is more in outcomes. The Packers are fifth in points allowed this season, and that jumps to third if you leave out the horrendous performance in Barry’s debut against New Orleans and start in Week 2. Pettine’s defenses were 13th and ninth.

That tells you Barry’s defense is playing the run well enough while not sacrificing defending the pass. And it’s defending the pass while playing most of the season without its two most important pass defenders (Za’Darius Smith and Jaire Alexander).

Also, Pettine’s run defense cost the Packers some games. In ’19, there were the two blowout losses to San Francisco, including the meltdown in the NFC championship game, when Jimmy Garoppolo threw only eight passes. In 2020, Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook (163 yards rushing) almost single-handedly beat the Packers at Lambeau Field.

Barry’s defense has suffered no such game-costing ruptures since the all-around defensive debacle that was his first game with the team. At this point, we can write that one off as a coach still learning his players, and the players still learning the scheme.

When I asked an offensive line coach for a recent Packers opponent about the difference he sees in Barry’s run defense vs. Pettine’s, he said simply: “More sound.”

Yes, it helps that Kenny Clark is having a dominant season in the middle of the defensive line. And yes, free-agent De’Vondre Campbell has made a difference at inside linebacker. But even with Campbell, it works both ways because Barry’s scheme frees him up more than Pettine’s would have. In Pettine’s defense, the linemen’s priority was to get up-field and disrupt, and the inside linebacker’s job was to cover up mistakes. In Barry’s, the line’s priority is to control the guy blocking them, which frees up others to make more plays.

Staley’s (and Barry’s) concession to run defense is extra size up front, including lots of five-man fronts. Barry commonly replaces an inside linebacker with a lineman, so he has five big defenders (three linemen and two outside linebackers), while deploying a nickel backfield (five defensive backs) behind them. That’s to stop the run without adding another player to the mix.

Pettine, on the other hand, played small as much as anyone in the league. According to Pro Football Focus, he was in dime personnel (six defensive backs) on 50% of the defensive snaps in his two seasons. Barry has played dime half that (24.7%).

If you want to see the scheme difference from the past two years, just watch the outside linebackers on the line of scrimmage. A common sight in 2019 and ’20 was one of the Smiths, Za’Darius or Preston, crashing down the line looking to get the jump on an inside run. Occasionally it worked, but just as often the back bounced outside them for a nice gain. 

That’s happened far less this season, because the priority for Preston Smith and Rashan Gary has been holding the edge and not letting backs get outside. That’s what “more sound” means.

This all matters because the Staley-Barry defense counts on handling the run without bringing up extra defensive backs into the box. Less against the run means more in coverage – more players and ways to cover.

So yeah, the NFL is a passing game. Of course it is. The teams with the best quarterbacks win the most. Everybody knows that.

But stopping the run still matters. It’s just a matter of how you go about doing it.

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