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Packers' defense will 'keep chopping' in pursuit of more takeaways

Green Bay looks ahead to Jets after dissecting Week 5 film

CB Jaire Alexander
CB Jaire Alexander

GREEN BAY – There's a feeling-out process involved with every NFL season – a path of discovery derived from the experiences attained over the course of a 17-game campaign.

For a Packers defense with astronomically high expectations for 2022, the first month has been a balancing act between the high of a dominant showing in Tampa Bay and the disappointment stemming from a 27-22 loss to the New York Giants in London.

Sunday started well enough for defensive coordinator Joe Barry's unit, as the Packers forced the Giants into back-to-back three-and-outs to take an early lead.

From the second quarter on, however, New York went on a run of five straight scoring possessions that propelled the Giants to the upset victory and sent Green Bay on a long plane ride home.

The Packers have dissected the film this week in preparation for Sunday's home matchup with the New York Jets. While the defense plans to stay true to its principles, Barry and his staff have also considered subtle tweaks that may be needed for their zone-based scheme.

"We're not just going to go play bump-and-run, press man coverage every snap. That's not the system that we run," Barry said. "But we do have to pick our spots and we do have to be much more aggressive at times when we can be.

"I think we have an elite, special group that can go get after people and go challenge people and get in their face and be aggressive. And we need to do that."

Five games in, the Packers' defense is in an interesting spot. It currently ranks fifth in total yards (303.4 yards per game), second in pass defense (177.0 ypg), fourth in third-down defense (30.2%) and 11th in scoring defense (19.2 points per game).

At the same time, Green Bay is sitting on one interception – Jaire Alexander's pick of Chicago quarterback Justin Fields in Week 2 – with four total takeaways, tied for 27th in the NFL.

The Packers have also been battling against a proliferation of over routes, or crossing routes, a concept the Giants hit a few times against Green Bay's zone. It's how Pro Bowl running back Saquon Barkley came free from the slot on a 41-yard catch on the game-winning drive.

Until the Packers shut them down, the defense knows it's likely to keep seeing those looks.

 "Obviously when somebody finds some weak spot or somewhere where we've been struggling with, of course we're gonna get it every single week until we stop it," safety Adrian Amos said.

"We gotta consistently stop it because the team that we play five games from now is gonna come back to that. 'Hey, let's see if they fixed that.' That's just something that we're just gonna have do better with. We're gonna have to find different ways to match the crosses and things that we're getting."

The challenge for Barry and his staff is weighing what adjustments to make with the foundational principles that made the Packers a top-10 defense across the board in 2021.

Schematically, the Packers have mainly rushed four this season while playing a two-safety shell. To combat the zone-beater looks, Green Bay could dial up more blitzes or press-man calls.

With Alexander healthy again, the Packers have the luxury of an All-Pro cornerback who "can do it all." He's fully capable of matching elite receivers and also has excelled playing off the line of scrimmage over the years.

"Ja's an elite corner. There's no doubt about it," Barry said. "We've looked long and hard at that this week that being able to allow our guys to be aggressive and go get in people's face, I think we have the guys to be able to do that and we can do that and we will do that moving forward."

The other piece to consider is personnel. In the offseason, the Packers talked at length about mixing their defensive backs, specifically in the slot, but the groin injury Alexander suffered against Tampa Bay threw a small wrench into those plans.

To this point, Rasul Douglas has primarily handled the inside in Green Bay's nickel package. It's a new spot for Douglas, who has predominately played outside throughout his career. He was a Pro Bowl alternate on the perimeter last year while standing in for an injured Alexander.

The Packers believe both Alexander and safety Darnell Savage are fit to play nickel corner, too, with the arrival of veteran Rudy Ford on the back end giving Green Bay more flexibility at safety if the team ever wanted to move Savage around.

Regardless of who's playing where, success still comes down to execution, players staying within themselves and the pass rush marrying up with the coverage. With that in mind, it's important not to make hasty decisions based on knee-jerk reactions.

"My job is don't let them throw touchdowns over your head, do what we did last year, get back to what we're comfortable doing," said defensive passing game coordinator/cornerbacks coach Jerry Gray. "I think that right now, guys are settling in. Trust me, we'll right the ship."

The defense has another opportunity to build this Sunday against a Jets offense that's tied for the fifth-most giveaways (nine), while quarterbacks Zach Wilson and Joe Flacco have been sacked a combined 12 times.

New York possesses a wide array of offensive weapons, though, and has won both games Wilson has started since returning from a knee injury that sidelined him for more than a month.

With most of the defense healthy again, the Packers are looking forward and trusting the process that led to them to 26 takeaways in Barry's first year as a coordinator.

"I firmly believe they'll come," Barry said. "But an offense isn't just going to turn the ball over. You have to create those. You have to physically take the ball. We've got to keep chopping wood and they'll come."