Now that the dust has settled a little bit on the Green Bay Packers’ hiring of defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley via Boston College, let’s talk about how the defense will probably change — from both a schematic and personnel standpoint — when compared to the Joe Barry era. Hafley, notably, last coached under Robert Saleh during his previous stint in the NFL. Since going to the college level, he appears to have taken that single-high safety structure with him at both Ohio State and Boston College.
According to Packer Report’s Daire Carragher, Hafley’s final three seasons at the college level saw the Eagles finish first, first and fifth in the FBS in single-high safety percentage. While Joe Barry’s defense was branded as a quarters-heavy system, they often did play Cover 3 — which along with Cover 1 is Hafley’s two most-called coverages. The difference between Barry’s Cover 3 was that it often was played out of a five-man front that forced direct one-on-ones between offensive linemen and pass-rushers, but it rarely had any level of deception to it.
Instead, Hafley has primarily based out of four-man fronts, similar to what Saleh has done with both the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Jets. Remember, Hafley is a professional coach who made the decision to enter the college football sphere, not the other way around. It wasn’t until Ryan Day, a former 49ers assistant coach, became Ohio State’s head coach that Hafley decided to become a defensive coordinator for the Buckeyes. He spent one season in Columbus before becoming the head coach of Boston College. Before then, he had spent the previous seven seasons in the NFL.
As a defensive backs coach, Hafley has coached some of the best cornerbacks in recent memory. In a podcast with Adam Breneman, Hafley told the story of how the eventual Pro Football Hall of Famer Darrelle Revis was coached under his watch as a graduate assistant at Pitt. In the NFL, he took inspiration from what he learned from Ronde Barber’s anecdotes on slot cornerback play and Richard Sherman’s wisdom on zone play from outside cornerbacks. If you want to hear what Sherman has to say about Hafley, listen to the clip linked below.
Richard Sherman on Jeff Hafley: pic.twitter.com/ViOAZc77dH— Soren Sodergren (@Soren_Sodergren) February 1, 2024
So Hafley is going to want to play with a post safety in the middle of the field and play a lot of Cover 1 (man) and Cover 3 (zone) out of a four-man front. What about players, though? How will that be changing for the Packers?
Honestly, the box is probably going to remain pretty familiar. Yes, there’s a difference between 3-4 outside linebackers and 4-3 defensive ends, but the real difference is that those guys will not be dropping back into coverage (at least often) anymore. For the most part, the Packers’ four-down front in a 4-3 defense will look a lot like what they ran in nickel sets under Joe Barry. Remember, nickel is still the primary set teams are going to deploy in the NFL, as most offenses play with three receivers on the field consistently.
At linebacker, bodies are going to be needed. Special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia has played a lot of safeties on the third phase of football during his two years in Green Bay. With the team going from two to three “starting” stack linebackers in “base” defensive looks, that might no longer be possible. At the moment, only three of the Packers’ inside linebackers on their end-of-year 53-man roster are currently under contract for the 2024 season, which includes De’Vondre Campbell — a potential cap casualty.
In the secondary, cornerback will be more of a premium position, which means that the team might not be able to get through stretches of play where guys like Corey Ballentine are lining up outside, but that also means that stars like Jaire Alexander will be better utilized, too. Did you want to see more press coverage? You’re going to get it.
Safety is probably the position where the team could see the most change. Getting out of the two-high world, where either safety could drop into the box late, and transitioning to a true single-high safety defense could easily alter what the Packers look for at the position. A great example of this is Talanoa Hufanga of the 49ers. The 2022 All-Pro was overlooked by many NFL teams after he ran a 4.64-second 40-yard dash. As a dropdown safety, though, San Francisco has been able to put Hufanaga in a position where his weaknesses are limited and his strengths are maximized for the former fifth-round pick.
Do not be surprised at all if Green Bay begins to search for a quicker, ranging middle-of-the-field safety to pair with an enforcing dropdown safety under Hafley. The strong safety and free safety will now have more defined roles moving forward, rather than under Barry, where the positions were virtually interchangeable.