Joe Barry didn’t top many lists as the favorite for the Green Bay Packers’ defensive coordinator job among fans. He didn’t top Matt LaFleur’s list either, as that honor went to Jim Leonhard, who turned down the job. But Barry will be Green Bay’s DC in 2021, so what can we expect from him? To figure that out, it’s best to assess the experiences he’s had that led him to this point, how he views football, and why he appealed to LaFleur.
Experience clearly helped Barry stand out from the crowd of candidate who, by and large, never possessed this level of power running a defense. But nearly all came with varied backgrounds under different schemes, a diversity LaFleur prized in coaching hires he’s made around his team like Nathaniel Hackett.
Barry coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebackers when Derrick Brooks played the position as well as anyone in the NFL, including during his 2002 Defensive Player of the Year campaign. His work with linebackers earned him two previous stints running NFL defenses, though neither went particularly well.
He brought that Tampa-2 defense with him to Detroit with Rod Marinelli where they stunk from a yardage perspective, but the Lions finished 3rd in turnovers in 2007 and 11th in adjusted sack rate in 2008. But Barry wouldn’t stick to that Cover-2 heavy defense as the league learned to attack it.
After stops back in Tampa and then his alma mater of USC, Barry returned to the NFL in 2012 where the Chargers ran a 3-4 under Chuck Pagano. Barry and Pagano survived the coaching change from Norv Turner to Mike McCoy, until Barry’s work again earned him a DC role in Washington with Jay Gruden, running that 3-4 front. The offensive coordinator on those teams? Sean McVay.
“I think he’s smart,” Marinelli said in 2015 when he was working in Dallas and Barry coached the Washington defense. It’s worth noting Marinelli’s daughter married Barry.
“I think he relates to people really well, communicates very well and is a teacher. Once you have those bases, I think you have a chance to be really good. And he has a great passion for the game.”
Former Packers and Washington defensive back Will Blackmon echoed those words, describing Barry as “passionate” on Twitter after the hiring was announced. He insisted that was not damning with faint praise, suggesting Barry “really cares” and greets all his defensive players before practice.
When LaFleur spoke about the need for a leadership change, this fits as one of the key alterations he saw as vital saying, “At the end of the season, just our ability to swarm and just give that great energy and effort, that’s what we’re looking for.”
Pettine, cerebral and mild-mannered, coached a defense who, especially in big games over two years, too often came out flat and uninspired. That doesn’t mean anyone has to be out there “motherf*cking” players as Billy Turner put it last fall, but a chance in attitude could be exactly what this team needs.
That doesn’t necessarily mean aggression. Brandon Staley’s team last year, and Barry’s in Washington, weren’t “aggressive” in the way we traditionally view it, with heavy man coverage or blitz-heavy philosophy.
Defensive tackle Ricky-Jean Francois described Barry’s approach in simple terms
“He’s not going to be trying to be the more aggressive dude. Only aggressive when he needs to. But at the same time, his one biggest thing is he wants his front four to get pressure. That was the biggest thing he emphasized. If he’s got DBs in the backend covering, he wants to be able to send that front four and drop seven. That’s every defensive coordinator’s dream to do. I want that dream to come true for him.”
If you didn’t know any better, you might think he was talking about the last two seasons with Pettine. Critics of his defenses in Washington suggested he wasn’t aggressive enough, wouldn’t take chances or play outside his scheme. Sounding familiar?
Still, McVay thought enough of him to bring him to Los Angeles and tag him with the ‘assistant head coach’ title. There, he coached under notoriously aggressive Wade Phillips, the man Barry beat out to be Washington DC the first time. That’s when he crossed paths with LaFleur, coached up players like Corey Littleton to go from UDFA to Pro Bowl caliber and stayed on when McVay made the switch to Staley before last offsason.
According to Tom Silverstein, the connection to Staley drove LaFleur’s interest both in Barry and Rams safeties coach Ejiro Evero. McVay loves the two-high coverage-disguise defense so much, he hired Raheem Morris—a Tampa-2 disciple like Barry— but insisted on keeping the philosophy. In fact, Barry coached under Morris in Tampa after the Detroit situation soured (0-16 seasons with do that).
The Francois quote jibes with how the Rams looked last season, though Staley made the calls not Barry. L.A. played light boxes over 80% of the time last year, the most in the league with Fangio’s Broncos right behind. Still this was a top-5 run defense because of how they attack OL gaps and used their team speed. Imagine how jealous Pettine must have been about a team with no stud linebacker, playing a bunch of sub-package and still stopping the run effectively.
The Rams stole gaps with slanting, penetrating defensive linemen, coverage disguise pre-snap, and disciplined, speedy back-end players. They’d show two deep safeties, but spin into single-high just before the snap. With Jalen Ramsey, he’d be allowed to play man coverage against elite receivers, while the rest of the team played zone, which meant even if Ramsey came in motion, LA might not actually be in man coverage across the board.
They played Cover-3 the most of any coverage, but played the most Cover-4 in football. They’d mix Cover-1 and Cover-6 (quarter, quarter, half) to be one of the most diverse defenses in football despite playing zone coverage on more than 80% of snaps. On third downs, they’d bring five-man pressures to try and create one-on-one matchups, rather than overload blitzes or double-A-gap blitzes to scheme up free-runners.
There’s plenty of overlap between that approach and the personnel Green Bay carries over into 2021. Their front can pressure with four when healthy, Jaire Alexander possesses the ability to do even more, playing that Ramsey role, and the Packers safety duo brings even more upside and versatility than what the Rams played with last season. Those pre-snap disguises would still allow a player like Darnell Savage to play that robber role, spinning down into the middle of the field before the snap.
How much of their success stemmed from Aaron Donald’s unique ability? Given how effectively the Packers exploited them with a gimpy Donald, it’s fair to wonder if the answer is “a lot.” But despite Green Bay success—remember this was the best offense in football with the league MVP—LaFleur clearly came away impressed with their approach, as did Aaron Rodgers.
Fans hoping for a linebackers coach who prizes traditional linebackers may be in for a rude awakening. The Rams never prioritized them in the draft, opting instead for hybrid players. They used top-100 picks on safeties Taylor Rapp and John Johnson III, both of whom developed into meaningful pieces on this defenses, with Johnson evolving into a star. Depending on the look, those guys may well be linebackers.
Don’t be surprised if the Packers use a top pick on a hybrid player to upgrade that Raven Greene/Will Redmond spot. If Josh Jackson isn’t going to be the boundary corner they’re looking for, perhaps conversion to safety makes the most sense.
“What it’s evolved to is speed, quickness, athleticism,” Barry said before the 2020 season on a Rams team podcast called Rams Revealed.
“You’ve gotta be able to run to play every position on the football field in 2020 football. I think that’s why it’s been so trendy to have these big safeties if you will. They’ve kind of morphed into LBs.”
And the reason is simple: speed.
“You have to be able to have those traits to play linebacker in the National Football League, especially if you’re going to be an every-down linebacker. If you’re going to play on first, second, third down and not come off the field, you have to be able to run, bottom line.”
What does that mean for Krys Barnes and Kamal Martin? Given the way the Packers and Rams prioritized linebacker in the draft, don’t expect much to change. In fact, prizing athleticism fits perfectly with how Green Bay’s front office already views the draft.
And while we can’t say how much LaFleur’s relationship with Barry played into the hire, surely LaFleur knows he’s bringing in a coach who matches his level of intensity at practice with McVay and the Rams setting the standard.
“Once you cross the lines onto our practice field, we believe in competition every single day. It’s a grind to make it through practice as a defensive coach when you’re going against a Sean McVay offense” Barry said on Rams Revealed.
“You’re holding onto your ass very single play because that’s the mindset Sean has. It’s attack.”
Barry won’t get a reprieve in practice from Rodgers and Co. every day either. But if he can start stopping them, not only will he achieve a feat the Rams couldn’t last year, he may be able to elevate this team back into Super Bowl contention.