Matt LaFleur is extremely loyal.
Perhaps to a fault.
Now, the question is will LaFleur’s trust in defensive coordinator Joe Barry sabotage a promising season for the Green Bay Packers.
After two largely disappointing seasons, LaFleur made the controversial decision to bring Barry back in 2023. By the looks of things Sunday, this season is headed in the same direction of the last two.
Facing at Atlanta offense that ranked 24th in total offense last season and 31st in passing offense, the Packers allowed a whopping 446 total yards and 27 first downs. Green Bay’s defense couldn’t get off the field, allowing Atlanta to go 9-of-19 on third and fourth downs and hold the ball 36 minutes, 15 seconds.
The Falcons scored on their final four drives of the game and ran 77 total plays. And the collapse of Barry’s unit allowed Atlanta to rally from a 12-point, fourth quarter deficit and post a 25-24 win.
“Just got to find a way to win games like that,” Packers cornerback Rasul Douglas said. “Those games right there show who you are. It’s one of those games and as a defense we expected to be on us, we’ve got to find a way to get off the grass.
“They made a few fourth down conversions and one of them was for a touchdown. Those just can’t happen. We’ve got to find a way to get off the field.”
If ever the Packers needed Barry’s defense to deliver it was Sunday.
The Packers were without running back Aaron Jones, wideout Christian Watson and left tackle David Bakhtiari — three of their 10 best players. Then Pro Bowl left guard Elgton Jenkins left with a knee injury.
Green Bay’s defense — a unit packed with eight first round draft picks — had the perfect opportunity to show this year could be different than past seasons. Once again, though, Barry & Co. failed to deliver.
The Packers’ run defense, which ranked 26th in the NFL last season and gave up an unsightly 5.0 yards per carry, was sieve-like once again. Atlanta ran for 211 yards on 44 carries — an average of 4.7 yards per attempt — and used its dominance on the ground to keep the ball away from Green Bay’s offense.
Afterwards, LaFleur was as agitated during his postgame press conference as any time during his five-year tenure in Green Bay.
“You guys saw it,” LaFleur said when asked about the run defense. “They shredded us – consistently.”
When Barry’s defense couldn’t get it done with traditional three-man defensive fronts, he kept adding defensive linemen. It didn’t matter, though, as Falcons rookie running back Bijon Robinson ran around and through the Packers’ defense and finished with 124 rushing yards on 19 carries (6.5 average).
“He’s a playmaker, very fast, shifty as you saw today,” Packers outside linebacker Rashan Gary said of Robinson. “(When) we go against a guy like that, you’ve got to keep him contained.”
The Packers couldn’t contain Robinson — or Atlanta’s passing attack.
The Falcons — and second-year quarterback Desmond Ridder — had just 91 net yards passing in their Week 1 win over Carolina. On Sunday, though, Ridder threw for 237 yards and ran for 39 more.
“We knew he was a mobile quarterback,” Gary said of Ridder. “At the end of the day, we knew coming in here we had to make him play quarterback.”
Wideout Drake London, who didn’t have a catch in the opener, got the better of Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander throughout and finished with six catches for 66 yards and a touchdown.
“I always wanna be perfect and I always wanna be the best and I didn’t display that today,” Alexander said. “So yep, a little frustrated. Nobody’s perfect.”
Both Alexander and linebacker Quay Walker dropped interceptions. And the Packers sacked Ridder just once.
“It’s like we’ve got to make plays,” Douglas said. “We all know what the standard is. It shouldn’t matter who’s not in. It just matters who’s in and then making plays. It would’ve been a statement. I think we knew we should’ve won this game but we didn’t.”
Would’ve, could’ve, should’ve.
That’s been the story of Barry’s defenses since he arrived in 2021. And really, it’s been the story of all the defenses he’s coordinated.
Barry was a defensive coordinator in Detroit in 2007-08 and in Washington in 2015-16, where things went remarkably bad in both cities.
Detroit ranked dead last in yards and points in both of Barry’s seasons running the defense.
In 2015, Washington ranked 28th in yards (380.6) and 17th in points (23.7). Then in 2016, Washington was once again 28th in yards (377.9) and 19th in points allowed (23.9).
Barry’s 2021 defense in Green Bay ranked a respectable ninth in yards (328.2), but 14th in points (21.8). Last year, the Packers slipped to 17th in total defense (336.5) and 17th in points allowed (21.8).
On Sunday, Barry’s defense had a chance to show that 2023 will be different than the last two years. Instead, his unit failed badly.
And now, the heat is back on Barry — and the head coach who opted to keep him around.