GREEN BAY – New Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry is using his assistant coaches in two important off-the-field capacities.
As evaluators and translators.
First, as Barry was studying his returning defensive players for 2021, he leaned on the position coaches to give him a rundown on their guys – an evaluation encompassing both what they do best and what their personalities are like.
Second, as the offseason program has progressed now to OTAs and Barry's scheme is being implemented, the assistants are helping the players connect the old playbook terminology to the new in meetings, hopefully speeding up the mental transition.
It's a level of help an incoming coordinator rarely gets, as Barry is taking over a defense with all of last year's primary position coaches still in place. While no one is viewing the scheme change as anything drastic, the continuity provided by the holdover staff should only make the conversion easier for all involved.
"I'm a big process guy, and the first people you have to implement the system to is the assistant coaches," Barry said. "I couldn't be happier with the group of guys that we have on the staff."
That group of returnees includes Jerry Gray and Ryan Downard with the secondary, Jerry Montgomery on the defensive line, and Kirk Olivadotti and Mike Smith with the inside and outside linebackers, respectively. Wendel Davis is also back as a defensive quality control coach.
Barry initially did a lot of legwork on his own to familiarize himself with the veteran players, watching all the game film from 2020 by his lonesome, according to Montgomery. Then, he combined those notes with what he gathered directly from the assistants to complete the picture of his returning defensive roster.
"He had a pretty good idea, when we sat down and talked about guys, what he was looking at," Montgomery said. "I could really just fill him in on what type of person, what type of work ethic, what type of guy he was going to be dealing with."
As for the assistants' role as translator, there's plenty of carryover from the previous defensive system, but similar concepts and calls just have different names. Their position coaches are the most convenient resources for the players to consult as they learn what's changed.
"We can pick up on things faster," defensive lineman Kenny Clark said. "A lot of it we're still able to build off things that we did last year."
New concepts and techniques are being taught as well, along with the philosophy behind them. It's all a process that will ramp up to full speed in training camp and through the preseason games to get to Week 1.
What exactly it'll look like won't really be known until then, but every area is likely to feature a combination of similarities and subtle changes.
Montgomery said there will be times his defensive linemen will be asked to be more aggressive. Barry suggested he'll "get creative" with his top three outside linebackers (Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith, plus Rashan Gary), who were on the field together a fair amount last season but could see that increase in the new scheme.
Barry also has referenced the importance of his "star" position, or nickel cornerback who must execute a multi-faceted role within the run defense, coverage and pressure packages.
Without naming specific players, Gray noted there are a handful of candidates the coaches are examining for the star, a list that'll get whittled down as the regular season approaches. Some possibilities would be corners Jaire Alexander and Chandon Sullivan, along with safety Darnell Savage. Rookie corners Eric Stokes and Shemar Jean-Charles might be in the mix as well.
"We've got some good players here and that's going to give us a chance to see how many guys can actually dominate at that position," Gray said.
It's still early, but the hope is to make enough progress this spring to limit the bumps in the road later in the summer. Head Coach Matt LaFleur said Barry has "a clear vision" of what he wants his defense to be, and every step in the process is helping it come into focus.
"As far as his defense … we want to disguise, we want to be aggressive," veteran safety Adrian Amos said. "The thing that he's harping on is details, getting to the ball, being great with fundamentals.
"That's what we have to be. Be great and sound with fundamentals, communication, all those little things that make a great defense."