Dougherty: Joe Barry must adapt Rams' defensive scheme to Packers' personnel
GREEN BAY - Matt LaFleur wants to run the same defense his close friend Sean McVay does with the Los Angeles Rams.
But while LaFleur’s new defensive coordinator, Joe Barry, brings Brandon Staley’s updated version of Vic Fangio’s scheme to the Green Bay Packers, he won’t have the two players most responsible for making Staley’s defense go with the Rams: Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey.
Barry will have some talent to work with, for sure – Jaire Alexander isn’t as highly regarded league-wide as Ramsey, but he is one of the NFL’s best corners, and the Packers have a bona fide defensive lineman (Kenny Clark) and outside rusher (Za’Darius Smith) as well.
But it will be Barry’s ability to adapt the scheme to the Packers’ personnel without having the league’s most dominant defensive player (Donald) that will determine whether LaFleur made the right move in replacing Mike Pettine, who was promptly hired by the Chicago Bears as a senior defensive assistant.
That LaFleur turned to a Fangio-based scheme is hardly a surprise. He told John Keim of ESPN.com in 2019 that Fangio’s defenses were the most problematic for him as an offensive coach. Then this past season the Rams, in their first year running Staley’s version, ranked No. 1 in the NFL in fewest points and yards allowed, and No. 2 in defensive passer rating.
But it’s not just as easy as plugging in the scheme with a new team. Any defense that has both Donald and Ramsey has a big head start in this league.
Barry’s charge will be adapting to the Packers’ talent, and in that regard may be the biggest thing to watch is how he deploys Alexander, the team’s best player on that side of the ball.
Among the hallmarks of Staley’s defense are the way he tries to outnumber receivers in coverage and disguise the coverages he deploys. The key to that is a cornerback who can cover one-on-one anywhere on the field.
The question is whether Barry will use Alexander in the “star” role that Ramsey often plays, which would mean lining up in the slot regularly, a role Pettine didn’t like because he considered playing outside and inside cornerback as “two different worlds.” He preferred having someone in the slot who played and practiced only on the inside.
Alexander doesn’t have Ramsey’s size – Alexander is 5-10 and 196 pounds to Ramsey’s 6-1 and 208. But despite his stature, Alexander is a physical tackler and the kind of dynamic player Barry might want in the middle of the action more often, regardless of his size. Barry has not been available to the media yet to comment on that possibility.
Regardless, here's a thumbnail look at Staley’s version of Fangio’s scheme, based on conversations with two offensive coaches who played the Rams last season as well as in-depth articles in The Athletic from late last season, one by Robert Mays and another by Jourdan Rodrigue and Ted Nguyen.
The first thing that jumped out when I re-watched the Packers-Rams divisional-round playoff game was that Staley favors playing an uncommon form of nickel defense. The standard nickel has a front four, two inside linebackers and five defensive backs. But Staley almost always lined up in that game with five-man fronts (three defensive linemen and two outside linebackers on the line of scrimmage), only one inside linebacker and a nickel (five-man) defensive backfield.
He did it on first down as well as third down, and he did it against three-receiver sets, which is the most personnel grouping in the league, but also against more run-heavy groups such as two tight ends.
Essentially, it’s a way to try to better stop the run while keeping five defensive backs on the field. Because, as Mays goes into in depth in his story, one of the keys for Staley (and Fangio) is keeping both safeties back for coverage. Last season, according to Next Gen Stats via Mays, the Rams played light boxes more than anyone in the league (83 percent of their defensive snaps), with Fangio’s Denver Broncos second (78 percent).
That means stopping the run with only six players in the box, which isn’t easy, as the Packers from 2019 (and at times in ’20) well know. Pettine occasionally played that same personnel but without the Rams’ results. We’ll find out in 2021 is whether Barry is better than Pettine at deploying different alignments and teaching gap responsibilities with five-man fronts.
“What really sucks in the NFL is if you’re in (three receivers) and try to run the football against (five-man fronts),” one of the coaches said. “Your (blocking) rules all change, the matchups are not great. This is a way for them to keep the base defense structure out there, but they’ve put in one better cover guy because the offense is in (three wides).”
The premise of Staley’s scheme is that in a passing league, the priority has to be stopping the pass. And doing that with both safeties in coverage is much better than lining up one in the box, because it makes it harder to hit big plays downfield and allows for more ways to outnumber receivers and disguise coverages.
It’s an approach Pettine believed in as well – in 2019 he quipped that it’s faster to fly to Miami (site of that season’s Super Bowl) than walk. Last season, the best thing the Packers’ defense did was prevent the big play – they gave up the league’s fourth-fewest completions of 20 yards or more. The Rams were second.
“It takes a lot of 4- and 5-yard runs to add up to a 50-yard pass,” Staley told Mays. “If you truly believe (explosive plays) are how you lose in the NFL, you really need to start there in your philosophical structure and how you construct your defense.”
The scheme de-emphasizes inside linebackers – there’s usually only one on the field – and puts more on safeties than most schemes do. They line up a little closer to the line of scrimmage, have to fill faster on run plays and are the keys to disguising coverages on defense.
Staley plays a mix of coverages that includes zone on one side and man on the other; rotating up one safety after the snap to help cover the middle of the field, while the other plays lone deep safety; and having Ramsey in man coverage while everyone else is in zone, which frees both safeties to help the other cornerbacks because Ramsey was responsible for his guy by himself. That’s something Barry should be able to do with Alexander.
It’s not like the Rams are the only team playing those coverages, but no one did it as much as Staley last season, because he had two safeties back more than anyone.
In essence, the coverage approach is similar to LaFleur’s on offense: Have things look more complex than they really are.
“All (the Rams) did was take advantage of a couple of their good players, put them in (good) spots,” said the other offensive coach. “I just remember going, this defense does look better (than in 2019), but it looks simpler. Sometimes when you run multiple defenses, guys make multiple mistakes.”
The question is whether Barry can make it work without having the Rams’ players.