Cowboys scouting report: Breaking down the Packers defensive scheme

When Mike McCarthy was fired in Green Bay and replaced by Matt LaFleur, the young coach opted to retain McCarthy’s defensive coordinator, Mike Pettine. The Packers then went on to win 13 games each of the next two years, reaching the conference championship game both times. That made it at least a little bit surprising when LaFleur opted to move on from Pettine.

His replacement came in the form of Joe Barry, a legacy coach with a ton of experience. Barry grew up a coach’s son, his father being a longtime offensive line coach in the college ranks. Later on in life, the younger Barry would marry the daughter of Rod Marinelli, giving him just one more connection to the coaching ranks of the NFL.

The connections came in handy, as Barry coached linebackers alongside Marinelli’s defensive line for six seasons with the Buccaneers. When Marinelli got the head coaching job with the Lions, he made Barry his defensive coordinator. Things didn’t go so well, of course, as both were part of the historically awful 0-16 Lions team in 2008.

Barry found work again, though, and had several stints here and there. Eventually, he became the defensive coordinator in Washington under head coach Jay Gruden. That brought him into contact with Sean McVay, the offensive coordinator at the time. Two years later, when McVay landed the Rams job and Barry found himself on the outs with Gruden, he took an assistant head coaching role in Los Angeles to help McVay succeed as the youngest head coach in NFL history.

Flash forward to the 2021 offseason, and LaFleur needed a defensive coordinator. His relationship with McVay undoubtedly played a part in considering Barry, and before long the coach was on his way to Green Bay for his third gig as a coordinator.

Knowing where Barry comes from is helpful to understanding how his defense operates. His coaching career was forged in the fires of the Tampa 2, a scheme that features (as Cowboys fans know all too well) plenty of zone coverage with two deep safeties. Unlike Marinelli, though, Barry has often preferred to operate out of a more traditional 3-4 look, with two outside linebackers that present an equal threat of rushing the passer or dropping into coverage. That made him a natural fit under Wade Phillips with the Rams and, later, Brandon Staley.

The hope was that Barry, despite his unspectacular performances in Detroit and Washington, would replicate the success of Phillips and Staley. To put things politely, though, that hasn’t happened. Barry’s first year saw the Packers drop from 10th in defensive DVOA to 12th; they fell to 25th the next year, and finished this year ranked 27th.

Unlike his previous stops, though, Barry’s failures can’t be explained away by a lack of talent. Jaire Alexander is often considered one of the league’s best cornerbacks, while defensive lineman Kenny Clark and linebacker De’Vondre Campbell have both been named to either Pro Bowl or All-Pro honors. They also have a talented edge rushing duo in Rashan Gary and Preston Smith. And yet they’re one of the worst defenses in football three years into Barry’s tenure. In fact, they’re 26th in both pass defense DVOA and run defense DVOA, suggesting that this defense is bad at everything.

Not only that, but this defense is uniquely bad at stopping the things Dallas does best on offense. This year’s Packers defense finished dead last in EPA/dropback allowed and QBR allowed on throws to the middle of the field, which is an area where Dak Prescott has thrived this year, particularly on throws to CeeDee Lamb and Jake Ferguson. Lamb, in particular, has been one of the most lethal receivers in the league this year on slant routes, and the Packers just so happen to rank dead last in defending slant routes both by EPA/play and passer rating.

The Packers run a very zone heavy scheme, and for whatever reason they’ve been brutally bad at defending passes in the middle of their zones. That doesn’t bode well for their matchup against Prescott, Lamb, Ferguson, and the rest of these Cowboys. Their likely only hope is their pass rush – which ranks sixth in pressure rate – making enough of a difference. Even then, the Packers’ high pressure rate also coincides with them having the 10th-highest blitz rate, and Prescott has been one of the best passers against the blitz both this year and throughout his entire career.

No matter which way you break it down, the Cowboys offense has a very favorable matchup against this defense, and that may still be underselling it. The Cowboys should have big days from their star players on offense, which is a big reason why they’re favored by a touchdown despite the Packers’ hot finish to the regular season.


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