From the moment Joe Barry was announced as the Green Bay Packers’ defensive coordinator, many fans and pundits expected him to fail.
After all, his track record in Washington and Detroit didn’t do much to inspire confidence. His two seasons running the Lions’ defense saw him preside over the lowest ranking group in terms of both points and yards allowed.
He then spent a few more years as an assistant before taking over Washington’s defense in 2015 and over two seasons there, he didn’t fare much better because he really couldn’t get worse. His groups there ranked 28th in yards allowed during Barry’s two years in charge while finishing 17th and 19th in points allowed.
Packers fans were aghast. After three seasons of enduring the hot-and-cold performance of Mike Pettine, THIS was the guy the team was handing the defense to? After failing to pry Jim Leonhard from the University of Wisconsin, this hire seemed to be an odd one. Was it a panic move by head coach Matt LaFleur or were there other forces at play?
Regardless, concerns over Barry’s defense would likely have been the headline surrounding the Packers during the off-season had it not been for the three-month-long standoff between Aaron Rodgers and the team. In a way, Rodgers’ unknown status kept the magnifying glass off Barry while he went about installing his defense.
Eventually, Rodgers did return before camp and thanks to an enormous dud in the Week 1 38-3 loss to the New Orleans Saints, the spotlight once again shone on Barry and all indications were that the fans suspicious of his hiring were being proven correct.
Or so it appeared.
Since that season-opening bed wetting, Barry’s group has not only righted the ship but have become arguably one of the NFL’s elite defensive units. Not only that, but they have done so without their best pass rusher (Za’Darius Smith) and their best cornerback (Jaire Alexander).
There also were question marks along the line and at inside linebacker heading into the season but those have since been answered (mostly). The signing of De’Vondre Campbell was general manager Brian Gutekunst’s best move of the offseason as Barry has helped turn Campbell into an All-Pro candidate and given the Packers their best inside linebacker in years.
In terms of the defensive line, there was concern about the lack of a true partner for Kenny Clark but Dean Lowry has enjoyed a solid bounceback year while fifth-round pick T.J. Slaton has emerged in the past few weeks as a solid run defender and he’s still a rookie.
Barry has also overseen a strong pass rush without Smith as Preston Smith has enjoyed a rebound season after a lackluster 2020. He looks much more like the 2019 version which has helped offset the loss of Za’Darius. Rashan Gary’s emergence as a game wrecker has also helped. Gary already has a career-high in sacks at 4.5 only 10 games into the season and as long his elbow injury suffered against Seattle doesn’t slow him down, he very well could get double-digit sacks.
Barry cut his teeth coaching linebackers and during his time in Tampa Bay helped mold Derrick Brooks into the hall of fame player he would become (Barry was Brooks’ position coach in2002 when Brooks won Defensive Player of the Year) and won a Super Bowl with the Buccaneers that same year. So the results in Green Bay shouldn’t be totally surprising even if it has caught many people off guard.
Even the secondary has contributed and remarkably it has been without Alexander. First-round pick Eric Stokes has already shown signs of being another lockdown corner (see Sunday's win over the Seahawks) who will create quite the dynamic duo with Alexander once he is healthy. Heck, even Kevin King (yes that Kevin King) has played better in this defense and got an interception last week and yes it was an interception. The miracles never cease under Barry!
In terms of statistics, it’s kind of a mixed bag because of Week 1 still being such an albatross on their performance but that effect will of course lessen as the season progresses. It’s still 10% of their stats which still anchors the numbers quite a bit but the Packers are still 12th in DVOA this year and without Week 1, they’re actually eighth.
So in short, yes the Packers' defense is good and everyone may have been wrong about Barry.
While the final chapter in the story of the 2021 defense remains to be written, it is still safe to say Barry has not only been competent but arguably stellar. The Packers faced a three-game gauntlet of talented quarterbacks in Kyler Murray, Patrick Mahomes, and Russell Wilson. Green Bay went 2-1 in that stretch (probably 3-0 if Aaron Rodgers avoids the COVID list) and the defense was the biggest reason why. Even more remarkable was the fact Barry himself missed the win over the Arizona Cardinals because he tested positive for COVID himself.
Another remarkable thing about Barry is what he has been able to do with someone else’s staff. The defensive staff is composed mostly of holdovers from Pettine last year yet performance is up almost across the board. The only change was the boss and that’s why Barry deserves a ton of credit. Usually, defensive coordinators bring in their own guys but Barry kept the group from 2020 mostly together. Was this a directive from above? Doubtful, as LaFleur doesn’t seem like much of a micromanager.
Perhaps the biggest lesson of all is what effect the franchise itself has on coaches. Barry’s two stints as coordinator came in Washington and Detroit, two of the NFL’S poverty franchises. Now he’s calling the shots with one of the premier teams in the league. Think that doesn’t have an impact on coaching performances?
The bottom line is we all owe Barry a big apology. The defense is an honest-to-goodness asset and should the Packers win their fifth Super Bowl in February it will be because of the defense, not in spite of it. It’s the one thread that ties all the previous four Super Bowl-winning squads together.
So Joe, if you’re reading this, we have one thing to say to you.
Our bad, bro. Keep up the good work.