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Packers' defense built to last after retaining key veterans

De’Vondre Campbell’s signing kickstarted strong 2021 season for the top-10 unit

LB De'Vondre Campbell
LB De'Vondre Campbell

GREEN BAY – Preston Smith had seen the cutups.

The Packers outside linebacker wasn't specifically isolating on De'Vondre Campbell during his film study, but Smith's eyes tended to gravitate toward the long, rangy defender with dreadlocks peeking through the back of his helmet.

Each time, Smith muttered the same question to himself.

"I'm like, 'Who is this guy?'" said Smith on Wednesday. "I don't know him personally, but he looks like he's always around the ball and he's always in position to make plays for the team."

Smith might as well have been speaking for the entire NFL. While Campbell was a valued and versatile contributor for five years in Atlanta and Arizona, the 6-foot-4, 232-pound linebacker was often viewed more like a jack-of-all-trades than a core playmaker.

That all changed this past season when word surfaced the Packers signed Campbell. Smith, recovering from a bout with COVID-19 at the time, was excited about what Campbell might bring to Green Bay's defense entering its first season under new coordinator Joe Barry – and the 28-year-old lived up to the hype.

Campbell's under-the-radar signing wound up being one of the most important free-agent acquisitions the Packers have made this century. The veteran linebacker not only shepherded the defense but also became the first Green Bay inside linebacker to be named AP first-team All-Pro since Ray Nitschke in 1966.

Campbell was one of several key additions the Packers made to steadily improve their defense. The team also drafted Georgia cornerback Eric Stokes in the first round and signed cornerback Rasul Douglas off Arizona's practice squad in October.

As those critical pieces fell in place, the defense rode a wave of momentum that carried through the season, culminating in a suffocating playoff performance against San Francisco in which the 49ers' offense was limited to 212 yards and just six points.

The end of the season raised some questions about whether there would be an encore in 2022, with both Campbell and Douglas entering free agency following their breakout campaigns.

The Packers found a way to keep the nucleus of their top-10 defense intact after extending Smith and re-signing both Campbell and Douglas over a span of seven days last month. Veteran defensive lineman Jarran Reed was added on March 23.

"I'm extremely excited. We're getting a lot of our key pieces back," Campbell said. "Going into Year 2 with a lot of us coming back and being able to take that next step from a physical standpoint, a mental standpoint, it's huge and the more that we can all get on the same page, the better we can be because, I mean, we did some great things last year."

Campbell bet on himself last spring, opting to sit out the initial wave of free agency in order to find the right opportunity. He eventually spoke with Green Bay due in part to his connection with Head Coach Matt LaFleur, who was Atlanta's quarterbacks coach during Campbell's rookie year with the Falcons in 2016.

The fit needed to be right, though. After years of playing multiple positions, Campbell had a request for potential suitors: He wanted to be a "Mike" linebacker, the every-down role responsible for communicating the defense.

The Packers said OK, and the rest was history. Campbell went on to lead the defense with 145 tackles, two interceptions, two sacks and two forced fumbles in 16 starts. He missed just four tackles all season, according to Pro Football Focus.

"I'm happy to have Dre back," said Smith, who had 42 tackles and nine sacks last season. "He's a big asset and having him on defense just makes a lot of guys more comfortable … knowing we've got this guy in the middle who can make plays for us, get guys lined up and he can play at a high level each and every week."

Keeping Campbell in the fold was just the beginning for Green Bay. The team also locked up Douglas long term after the sixth-year veteran led the Packers' secondary with five interceptions (including two returned for touchdowns) in just 12 games.

Douglas, who gained a reputation for his late-night study habits at Lambeau Field, fills out a talented secondary that includes All-Pro cornerback Jaire Alexander, Stokes, veteran safety Adrian Amos and former first-round pick Darnell Savage.

The Packers lost two-time Pro Bowler Za'Darius Smith up front, but brought back two-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Kenny Clark, the venerable Dean Lowry and Rashan Gary, who led the defense with 28 quarterback hits and 9½ sacks last season.

"You have all these guys returning on this defense," Smith said. "And signing Jarran Reed and having Kenny Clark, along with me back and Rashan, I feel like just saying those names is producing so much excitement, knowing that we've got all these players that can contribute at a high level and create so much success for this team and for this defense."

Overall, the Packers are set to return 18 defensive players who combined for 9,210 of the unit's 11,869 total snaps played last season (77.6%). Green Bay lost just one defender (Chandon Sullivan) that played more than 400 snaps in 2021.

There is a sense of unfinished business among those who are back following the Packers' 13-10 loss to the 49ers in the NFC Divisional playoffs. As disappointing as the result was, Campbell believes that game showed the defense what it is capable of.

"We had some highs and some lows, but the bottom line is the last time we took the field as a defense, we gave up six points," Campbell said. "So, that's just the standard that we have from here on out and that's what's expected."