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Packers' defense striving for more consistency in 2023

Talented unit looks to start faster after finishing last year on high note

Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry
Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry

GREEN BAY – Joe Barry understands the expectations that accompany having first-round talent at every level of a defense.

It's simple math, really. The higher the draft choices, the larger the hopes. While the Packers' third-year defensive coordinator isn't backing down from that reality, Barry also isn't making the construct of his unit out to be anything more than it is.

Because at the end of the day, it's up to the entire defense and coaching staff to perform every Sunday regardless if the players in that locker room arrived in the first round or seventh.

"That's the great thing about having this word on our chest," said Barry on Tuesday while sliding his hand over the 'Packers' lettering on his sweatshirt. " that we're Green Bay Packers and the expectations of this place are high all the time, and that's great. I love it."

For as much as things have changed on offense, the Packers' defense enters 2023 in a similar position to last year when it returned a majority of its talent-rich unit, including seven former first-round picks.

That number grew to eight last month after General Manager Brian Gutekunst drafted Iowa's Lukas Van Ness with the No. 13 pick. The 21-year-old linebacker is the seventh defender Gutekunst has selected in the first round since he was promoted to GM in 2018.

The Packers are hopeful the addition of Van Ness, eventual return of Rashan Gary and Eric Stokes from injury and the maturation of the rest can catapult the defense back into the NFL's top 10 following an uneven start to 2022, which Barry also takes responsibility for.

"If you do go back and really critique last year, the inconsistencies were the things that really got us," Barry said. "We played well at times. We didn't play well at times. And that's what you can't do in this league."

The defense showed marked improvement after conceding 500 yards and a season-high 40 points in a late-November loss to the eventual NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles.

After making a few structural tweaks to both the scheme and personnel, the defense cut its rushing yards allowed from 154.8 per game to 103 over its final five games, while doubling its takeaways from 12 to 24.

Green Bay's 17.6 points allowed per game over that final stretch would've ranked second in the NFL if carried across a full season. What's more, the defense's 322.0 yards allowed per game would've been good for ninth.

Still, the defense's early struggles contributed to the Packers dropping to 17th in total yards (336.5 yards allowed per game) and finishing 26th against the run (139.5 ypg) for the full season.

"We've got to show up and play our best version of football, our best version of defense," Barry said. "We can't be up one week and down the next. We've got to find that consistency and show up every single week. The last five or six weeks of the season, we found that. We don't have time to waste 10 weeks."

Postseason film review confirmed many in-season premonitions, from the adjustments Barry and his coaches needed to make to situational facets of the game where the defense fell short, including missed tackles.

This year's unit will have a slightly new look to it, with Greg Williams replacing Jerry Gray as the defensive pass game coordinator. There are also two starting spots available on the defensive line following the departures of Dean Lowry and Jarren Reed, and possibly an opening at safety with Adrian Amos still a free agent.

Barry doesn't know who will start alongside Darnell Savage on the back end but has plenty of safeties to choose from. The Packers re-signed Rudy Ford and Dallin Leavitt, added Jonathan Owens (from Houston) and Tarvarius Moore (from San Francisco), return Innis Gaines after seeing some late-season snaps on defense, and drafted Anthony Johnson Jr. in the seventh round.

The Packers have a firmer plan in place at cornerback, with Jaire Alexanderand Rasul Douglas covering outside, and Keisean Nixon projected to roam the slot in the nickel. Douglas started last season inside but looked more in his element on the perimeter. He recorded three of his four interceptions during the final seven games in relief of an injured Stokes, who was lost for the season to ankle and knee injuries in Detroit last November.

"On Monday when we start OTAs, with Eric not even being able to practice, we feel like we've got two pretty good outside corners in Ja and Rasul, and then Keisean," Barry said. "He played about 400 snaps for us last year on defense, predominantly at the nickel corner spot, so when we break the huddle Monday, he'll be there. Again, it's May. That's the thing … about OTAs and training camp, all that stuff will sort out."

Up front, there's a foundation in place with De'Vondre Campbell and Quay Walker returning at inside linebacker, and Preston Smith and Kenny Clark leading a youthful front. As the rest falls into place this summer, Barry is optimistic the defense can learn from last season and be a weekly tone-setter the Packers need it to be.

"I definitely think we evolved last year into what worked for us, but the key thing is you've got to do that early. You've got to do it now," Barry said. "We lost a couple of guys, but we've got a great group of guys. Just working with them the last five weeks, we get four more weeks with them before we break, before training camp, and I'm just excited about the process."

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