Jeff Hafley's Defense Is Going To Give Up Big Plays... But That's OK

New Defensive Coordinator Jeff Hafley has fans excited with all his talk of an aggressive, attacking scheme. But that doesn't mean this group is going to immediately start pitching shutouts.

For years, the Packers have under-achieved on defense.

They've kept a revolving door of Defensive Coordinators moving pretty steadily, but the results were largely the same.

That's because, regardless of the coordinator, no matter what little schematic tweaks or unscouted looks were sprinkled in, the organization had the same overarching strategy on defense.

No one in the building would dare call their approach "conservative," but that's what it was.

Going all the way back to Dom Capers, the Packers defense has worked under the same philosophy: don't give up big plays; make the offense go down the field slowly and wait for them to make a mistake.

While the logic is sound, and makes sense (from a certain point of view), there are two big flaws in that approach.

The first is that it assumes that the defense won't make a mistake. If you're going to sit around waiting to capitalize on a mistake by the offense, you have to play flawlessly, yourself. And no matter how many times the Packers used a 1st round pick on defense (it was 12 times in 12 years), they would still make mistakes.

To err, after all, is human.

But there's also a bigger flaw in that approach, and it has grown over time.

That approach fails to account for the fact that the NFL hates defense.

Ok, that may be a bit of an overstatement. It's probably more accurate to say that the NFL likes scoring. They cater to the fantasy football and gambling crowds more than football purists. They are a business focused on profits and profits are in points.

The league has changed the rules. The league has changed the interpretation of rules. The league has changed points of emphasis. 

And all of the changes have benefited the offense.

Defenses don't have a chance, especially if they try to play straight up conservative ball and hope that the offense makes a mistake.

Just look at the skyrocketing touchdown totals and plummeting interception totals across the league (except Chicago). It's not that quarterbacks have gotten insanely accurate, it's that the league has made it easier and easier for offenses to score, especially through the air.

That has (finally) brought about a necessary change to the Packers defensive philosophy.

Be aggressive and either get a quick stop or allow a quick score.

In the past, if the Packers had a small lead late in the game, the defense would try to play conservative and not give up a big momentum-swinging scoring play.

What would inevitably happen (as I'm sure you all know) is that the opposing offense would steadily take what the Packers defense gave them, predictably and mechanically grabbing small chunks of yards against soft coverage, and eventually win the game with a field goal as time expired or a touchdown with only a few seconds left.

Now, the Packers appear to be adapting.

If we believe Jeff Hafley is really going more aggressive, it signals a change that adapts to the changing rules of the game.

If it's easier to pass, a defense has to be aggressive to get a stop.

However, being aggressive can lead to giving up big plays.

But if you give up a big play, you get the ball back with more time on the clock.

Then your offense, who can pass easier because of all the rule changes, has a chance to score again.

This is the way the NFL now works, and the Packers are keeping pace.

Their defense will give up big plays, but it just might be their best chance to win.

 

 

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Bruce Irons has played, coached, and studied football for decades. Best-selling author of books such as A Fan's Guide To Understanding The NFL Draft, A Fan's Guide To Understanding The NFL Salary Cap, and A Fan's Guide To NFL Free Agency Hits And Misses, Bruce contributes to CheeseHeadTV and PackersForTheWin.com.

Follow Bruce Irons on Twitter at @BruceIronsNFL.

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Comments (19)

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splitpea1's picture

June 24, 2024 at 03:57 pm

I can't really agree with the title. It's not okay to give up big plays, so the secondary will have to be trained to do a stellar job in coverage and the entire team will need to tackle better to prevent smallish gains from turning into big plays.

The way the rules have shifted to favor the offense over the years is a travesty. The bogus roughing the passer and illegal contact calls take away from the integrity of the game.

"Conservative" and "nonsensical" are two different things. Maybe it's conservative to make sure you're not getting burned deep, but it's stupid to give up easy first downs in front of you because your secondary is playing ridiculously far off and has no chance of either a breakup or creating a turnover. So I would draw a distinction there.

I'm all for a more aggressive approach as long it's measured, fundamentally sound (including things like gap integrity and run defense), and helps us get off the field after third down more often so our offense can get back to work.

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Guam's picture

June 24, 2024 at 04:50 pm

I'm okay with the title. And I am hoping Hafley's defense is less about aggression than it is about unpredictability. I don't think any defense that is predictable is going to succeed in the NFL. Which is partly why Barry's defenses had difficulties giving up second half drives that lost games. OC's knew what Barry was going to do on defense and had the answers figured by the second half.

I am hoping Hafley mixes it up a lot more with both aggressive looks and some passive looks that confuse opposing offenses. Opposing OC's are going to guess right sometimes and get big plays, but Hafley should guess right at times too and get turnovers or three and outs. Hence my acceptance of the title - the Pack will give up some big ones, but should have many more big defensive plays than we saw under Barry.

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LLCHESTY's picture

June 24, 2024 at 06:06 pm

Giving up a couple big plays but also getting a couple turnovers and winning 28-17 is better than playing conservative and letting a team methodically gain yards and eat up TOP and being up 24-17 and the opponents having the ball with 3 minutes left. A conservative defense is at a mental disadvantage against an offense that has shown it can gain yards all game. Defensive players are by nature aggressive and allowing them to play that way can give them a mental advantage, especially one that can rush the passer and knows the other team has to throw at the end of the game.

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Tundraboy's picture

June 24, 2024 at 11:17 pm

Bravo. No dancing around here what the core problem has been. No more stupid, As in no more 5, 10 yard cushions.

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Coldworld's picture

June 24, 2024 at 04:30 pm

It all comes down to percentages. Defensive defense can still work if the goal is to slow opponent scoring and a team is good at it. Good means both air and ground and consistency. Giving up yards slowly and time of possession is a disaster if the D then gives up significant plays or ultimately regularly gives up scoring.

Aggressive D means getting the ball back earlier and in better positions more often and letting your offense grind them down instead. It will mean more big plays but it may mean less yards per drive. No D is going to survive giving up 50 yard plays regularly, but four 12 yard plays is worse than one 25 yard and out.

Then there is the turnover factor. Particularly in the air, playing the catch point means more contested throws for opponents and more chances for possession to be stolen, directly or by forcing greater risk. Smart teams will just keep taking 6 yards plus high percentage plays if you let them. With current rules there are more of them than 25 years ago because defenders can’t do things to help reduce the catch percentage that they once could. I wish it were otherwise.

In addition, a team moving the ball at will gains the confidence to start just hogging possession on the ground. Tiring our D and keeping our O sitting even longer. Over a game that gives a huge advantage. Also, teams feel they can waste a down on a potential risk surprise or low percentage play and still get a first down, increasing the chances of a big play at a critical
moment. Playing off means it’s less likely that such plays result in a turnover as opposed to a dead ball. We saw a lot of that against Barry Ds. A lower percentage but also lowered risk of it backfiring.

Finally, there’s the question of roster. I don’t know the last time we had a roster that looked like it was better playing soft zone collectively, yet both McCarthy and LaFleur pushed their coordinators to stop big plays first and foremost. Still we drafted players seemingly suited to man or at least press under both TT and Gute. Both Pettibe and Barry moved to softer coverage and away from a turnover/sack led strategy during their time here. Perhaps we’ve finally learned, but I’d love to know why we drafted as we did going back to Capers later years.

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Bearmeat's picture

June 24, 2024 at 05:43 pm

Agreed 💯

The Packers had nowhere to go but up. They couldn’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results.

They may not be good this year. But they won’t be mediocre. And I think the talent will allow them to be good.

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MainePackFan's picture

June 24, 2024 at 06:02 pm

We gave up plenty of big plays with the so-called "bend but don't break" philosophy over the years. I think it's fair to say that most of Packer nation will welcome a different approach. Will it work? I have no idea, but I have seen wasn't doesn't work.

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GregC's picture

June 24, 2024 at 06:04 pm

The last time the Packers hired an aggressive defensive coordinator was Bob Slowik in 2004. They also went heavy with defense in that draft (four out of six picks). It was a disaster. After a few games, they had to dial back the blitzes because they were giving up so many TDs, and Slowik was fired at the end of the season. I'm expecting better results this time, but I don't rule out that it could blow up in their faces.

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LLCHESTY's picture

June 24, 2024 at 06:09 pm

The guy that replaced him didn't really stem the tide either. 🤷

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DoubleJ's picture

June 25, 2024 at 07:28 am

Jim Bates wasn't a bad DC. The team was better on D with him that Slowik and with similar talent. However, it was again bend but don't break. The Jimmy Johnson D from the early 90s Cowboys.

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DoubleJ's picture

June 25, 2024 at 07:27 am

That was also the last Mike Sherman draft. If you remember he traded up to draft a punter in R3... Overall the team was pretty devoid of talent, especially on D, after multiple Sherman drafts. That said Slowik was a bad choice for DC in general.

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TheTaxiSquad's picture

June 25, 2024 at 01:00 am

Of course it has to be a balanced, smart defense, playing the odds of what’s happening. I remember either Hafley or LaFleur saying, it’s not the scheme that will change much, it’s the style of play. Hopefully there’s an intelligent approach to modern offenses and the probabilities in any given situation.

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HarryHodag's picture

June 25, 2024 at 07:40 am

You will see some passes and runs for long gains/touchdowns. But I still think of the '85 Bears defense which was constant pressure but they broke very little. Mike Singletary was key. The 2000(?) Ravens defense with Ray Lewis was the same way. Note the one common denominator: dominating play by the middle linebacker. The Packers have yet to find that player.

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GregC's picture

June 25, 2024 at 09:22 am

Yeah, I would love to have a dominating MLB. The Packers have made a few attempts at getting that kind of player, drafting Nick Barnett, A.J. Hawk, and Quay Walker in the first round. Maybe Edgerrin Cooper could be that guy, but it looks like they are going to play him outside and put Walker in the middle. The two of them together could potentially be really good.

I think dominating MLBs are less common now because opposing offenses figured out how to neutralize those big bruising LBs with short passes. LBs have to pick their spots to be aggressive because if they are constantly attacking they are going to get burned.

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PatrickGB's picture

June 25, 2024 at 10:37 am

I got an idea. How about we don’t give up the big play AND stop the run?

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Packer_Fan's picture

June 25, 2024 at 11:30 am

The Packers need to make the playoffs. And backing off the aggressiveness is ok with me. The defense needs to improve over the course of the season. And during the playoffs be competitive during the playoffs and win at the end if games. We haven't had that under Lafleur. That's what I am looking for

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Ya_tittle's picture

June 25, 2024 at 03:34 pm

If only we would've been aggressive on that last NIners drive instead of sitting back and letting their QB pick us apart.

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Packer_Fan's picture

June 25, 2024 at 04:32 pm

Exactly

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Leatherhead's picture

June 25, 2024 at 04:46 pm

The author correctly stated that our organizational strategy, for decades, has been to keep the gains small and make teams work the ball down the field. This doesn’t assume the defense won’t make mistakes, it assumes that there will be fewer, smaller mistakes, because mistakes lead to points and points lead to losses.

We gave up 350 points last season, some in garbage time. Let’s see how this goes. I liked the old way but thought we needed some better players on the field. We have them now, so I’d expect us to be better, but giving up quick, easy scores doesn’t sound like a very good strategy to me. We’ll see.

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