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Jeff Hafley looks to bring 'fearless' approach to Packers' defense

New defensive coordinator excited to coach in the “mecca of the football world”

Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley
Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley

GREEN BAY – Less than a month ago, Jeff Hafley made the toughest decision of his coaching career when he stepped down at Boston College to become the new defensive coordinator of the Green Bay Packers.

The move not only meant leaving players and staff but also friendships Hafley and his wife, Gina, formed during their four years on the East Coast. Boston also was home to couple's two daughters, Hope and Leah.

There also was a part of Hafley drawn to the opportunity in Green Bay, the franchise's rich history, the success of Head Coach Matt LaFleur, and General Manager Brian Gutekunst's established track record in player acquisition.

As torn as Hafley felt at the time, the morning commute down Lombardi Avenue the past few weeks has reassured Hafley that he made the right decision.

"It's the Green Bay Packers," said Hafley during his introductory news conference on Thursday. "This is like the mecca of the football world to me and probably to most people who grew up loving football. Just being here and driving into Lambeau every day, it still feels surreal.

"The community, maybe the best fans in all of the world, as well, that made a really, really hard decision – leaving Boston College, players that I loved, staff that I loved, the leadership at the school – it made a really hard decision a lot easier and ultimately that's why I decided to come."

LaFleur wrestled with his own challenges in Green Bay this offseason, beginning with the decision to move on from Joe Barry after three seasons as defensive coordinator. LaFleur interviewed a wide array of candidates for the post, several of whom secured coordinator jobs in other NFL cities.

But ultimately it was Hafley's strong reputation in the coaching world, partnered with an aggressive defensive mentality, that shot his name to the top of Green Bay's list of candidates.

While LaFleur never worked directly with Hafley, he had several coaching connections to his new defensive coordinator. LaFleur's younger brother, Mike, coached with Hafley in both Cleveland and San Francisco, where Hafley also worked alongside LaFleur's close friend Robert Saleh and current Green Bay offensive coordinator Adam Stenavich.

Hafley favors a vision-based, press-man style of defense that brings with it a shift to a 4-3 base front, an alignment Green Bay hasn't regularly deployed since 2008.

LaFleur didn't go into the hiring process necessarily looking to make a structural change but was on-board with it after hearing Hafley's defensive philosophy. What's more, it's a transition LaFleur and Gutekunst feel confident the team's current roster can seamlessly make.

"I wanted to get who I thought was the best for us," LaFleur said. "Every situation's a little bit different. I equate putting a coaching staff together to, it's like putting a puzzle together. And how does each piece fit? And that's an important part of it, the fit, and he just happens to run more of a 4-3 and that's … but I felt comfortable with what we had."

LaFleur sees a lot of parallels between the scheme Hafley looks to deploy and the relentless, attacking style of defense that's been a staple with the 49ers, Saleh's New York Jets, and the Houston Texans.

A defensive backs coach by trade, Hafley cut his teeth working with some of the NFL's top cornerbacks, coaching Pro Football Hall of Famer Darrelle Revis at the University of Pittsburgh and Richard Sherman in San Francisco.

He's also well-studied in a variety of coaching schemes, including his run in Cleveland with former Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. Prior to being hired at Boston College, Hafley coordinated an Ohio State defense that ranked among the nation's best in total defense (second), scoring defense (third), and sacks (third).

The last four years at Boston College may have been the most beneficial of all. It not only gave him perspective of being a head coach but also reinforced the importance of getting the most out of your players.

"It's always been important to me to try to make the game simpler for players," Hafley said. "Because part of me being a coach is I have to be a great teacher, so I take all this important that I have and all these things, but I make it very simple for you to understand so you can go out and play fast and aggressive and not worry about anything."

Hafley is midst of assembling an energetic staff and looks forward to how that will translate on the field. As a play-caller, he wants to be aggressive and not bound to specific ideology on particular down-and-distance.

There are times where Hafley says "you gotta get exotic" to pressure the quarterback and times to keep it simple. The goal is for his players to "play fearless and play with their hair on fire" to hit, run and get off blocks.

Schematic fluidity is an inevitability. The structure may be a 4-3 base defense, but Green Bay will get faster when the opponent gets faster and bigger when the offense gets better. Zone coverages will be built on "vision and break" with "two or three" guys going 100 miles an hour to the ball."

"The things I believe in defense – whether you're playing 3-4 or 4-3, press man, which I do love … it comes down to can you take your players who you have and put them in the best position to succeed?" Hafley said. "Can you take your players and maximize their ability? Every player wants to get better, and that's our job to do. Our job is to put the players in the best position to succeed and make plays."

With his family still back in Boston, Hafley has pulled some late nights at Lambeau Field. In gaining familiarity with the team's personnel, Hafley sees a number of defenders he believes will fit well into his scheme.

That extensive film study has the 44-year-old Hafley amped up and champing at the bit to get to work.

"I've probably got to watch more football the last week-and-a-half than I've gotten to watch in like four months," Hafley said. "As a head coach in college, you're pulled in so many different directions. I feel like a kid in a candy store again just sitting there and being able to watch on tape. It's probably one of the most refreshing and clear-minds I've had in such a long time. I'm having a blast doing it."

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