How will Jeff Hafley change Packers' defensive staff, players, and scheme?
Former San Francisco 49ers defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley will take over the Green Bay Packers defense, but does that mean he's bringing the Bay to ... the other Bay?
DC watch has ended, we can rest … except we can’t because now it’s time to dig into Jeff Hafley. Who is he? How will he work? What will he change? Maybe most importantly for fans, how is he not like Joe Barry? We will start to answer some of those questions today, while many of them will have to wait until at least the regular season and perhaps even a year from now before we have a clear picture of what his vision for the Green Bay Packers defense is when given full run of the house.
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How will new defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley’s staff look different?
Peter Bukowski: The short answer is it will look different. As The Leap first reported over the weekend, former pass-rush specialist Jason Rebrovich is expected to take over for longtime defensive-line coach Jerry Montgomery. Rebrovich’s promotion, just a year after he was promoted from outside-linebackers coach, stems from a desire to streamline communication along the defensive front.
Sources confirmed to The Leap that Hafley’s defense will resemble the San Francisco 49ers which means a hybrid 4-3 front where a 4-2-5 nickel package will be the norm. Think wide-nine defensive ends, penetrating linemen, and an amorphous back seven where linebackers will be moving around at the snap, bluffing blitzes, and generally trying to confuse and disguise their looks.
When Jason wrote about the hire last week, we had at least projections that would be the case, but a source familiar with the Packers’ plans confirms it.
They are expected to backfill that position with either an outside linebackers coach or pass rush specialist. Two names to watch here: Eddy McGilvra, an independent defensive-line coach who has worked with Kenny Clark for a number of years, coached Lukas Van Ness through the pre-draft process and worked with Devonte Wyatt, Karl Brooks, and most of the D-line room last summer in Southern California.
The other name is Boston College defensive-line coach Vince Oghobaase who played at Duke and coached at UCLA before joining Hafley at BC. Oghobaase goes back to Hafley’s San Francisco days when he was the assistant D-line coach.
Packers News reported some coaches will be allowed to interview for other jobs, a polite way of moving on from them without officially saying, “You’re fired.” For the moment, no word on how that will affect some of the newer members of the defensive-backs staff. However, it would make sense that a former DBs coach would want his guys working with that position group. We’ll have you covered here on The Leap with all the latest.
How different will the defense be compared to Joe Barry?
PB: While Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst dismissed the notion that the team would overhaul the way it scouts defensive players, the structure and philosophy will be importantly different. A league source with knowledge of the Packers’ plans told The Leap that the 49ers defense, specifically the versions run by former DCs Robert Saleh and DeMeco Ryans, will be the closest proxy for what we can expect in the NFL.
So, while Hafley’s Boston College teams played man coverage as much as any team in Division 1 college football (2nd in man coverage on 3rd downs last year), the 49ers played man coverage just 36.3% of the time back in 2022, the last time Ryans ran the 49ers defense. Saleh’s Jets played man 37.8% of the time, according to FTN Fantasy’s charting.
The Packers under Joe Barry played even more man coverage.
Saleh and the Jets called more man coverage this past season (47.5%) but were 13th in usage. Hafley, as a former defensive-backs coach, may want to play man more often as he did at BC, featuring more middle-field-closed safety looks and simulated pressures as well as heavy pressures with six or more coming for the quarterback.
Here’s a look from the NFC Championship Game that is easy to imagine being translatable for the Packers in 2024. It’s a true four-man front as they make the shift, but while defensive end Nick Bosa has his hand in the dirt as a wide-nine technique, Chase Young is standing up, splitting the tackle and the tight end.
Both outside corners are within 3 yards of the receiver with the isolated backside player in full press (it’s difficult to press from stacked alignments which is the whole point of using them). And linebacker Fred Warner is walked up into the A gap threatening to blitz. This is meant to look like man coverage.
But it’s not. The Detroit Lions get fooled, Bosa wins to the corner, and it’s a sack at a pivotal time in the game. Young drops, Warner sinks right underneath where Jared Goff wants to go with the ball, and Dre Greenlaw blitzing off the offense’s right side puts Lions right tackle Penei Sewell in no man’s land.
The NFL is moving toward more simulated pressures. Baltimore Ravens DC Mike MacDonald just earned a head-coaching job doing it. One of the most consistent traits of the Hafley defenses at Boston College was designer pressure, especially in the red zone. Expect a much more aggressive approach to blitzing and a more modern take on pre-snap disguise.
What happens with the secondary will be fascinating. Gutekunst hinted players may be asked to move around positionally. The most intuitive place for position change starts with slot corner Keisean Nixon who could be a ball-hawking, single-high safety in this defense, particularly as his tackling improved throughout this past season. Defensive back Darnell Savage fits better as a nickel/overhang defender in this defense. But neither player has a contract for 2024, which could lead the Packers to simply move on.
I’d expect at least one, if not both players, back this offseason on modest prove-it deals, but don’t be surprised if they go the free-agent route and add a player like Tashaun Gipson, a long-time veteran and current 49ers safety.
Green Bay raided the Senior Bowl last year for offensive talent. Is there a defender there for Hafley’s new defense?
PB: Just to recap: Essentially the entire skill group for the Packers went to the Senior Bowl in their draft class. Christian Watson, Romeo Doubs, Jayden Reed, Donyavion Wicks, Luke Musgrave, and Bo Melton all showed out during their trips to Mobile, Alabama.
With the offense reloaded, the secondary needs the help. Expect Green Bay to use an early pick on a cornerback, either one who can play the boundary and serve as insurance for Eric Stokes or one who can play the slot (someone like Missouri’s Ennis Rakestraw Jr. can do both).
Toledo cornerback Quinyon Mitchell proved the entire point of the Senior Bowl last week. He’s a small-school cornerback who played mostly off coverage then went to the Senior Bowl and locked up everyone across him. In the process, Mitchell showed that he could play press, be physical, and has the athleticism to hold up against major college receivers.
Testing will be vital to confirm him as a Packers type. But assuming he passes those checkpoints -- and we’ll get those numbers later this month -- Mitchell fits the size profile Green Bay traditionally prizes.
In this class, there will be kids in the secondary who just can’t play for a former DBs coach. They don’t tackle or they don’t have the right demeanor or both. Mitchell doesn’t have that problem. The problem, if there is one now, it’s that Mitchell might not make it to 25 where the Packers pick.
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