As the 2022 NFL season approaches, expectations for the Green Bay Packers defense are high. The unit performed inconsistently in 2021. However, this offseason has seen Brian Gutekunst make a concerted effort to strengthen multiple areas of the defense. In free agency, Green Bay added veteran DT Jarran Reed. During the draft, they picked up DT Devonte Wyatt, LB Quay Walker, and OLB Kingsley Enagbare. In addition to these moves, the Packers secondary will be boosted by the return of Jaire Alexander, who missed most of 2021 with a shoulder injury.
With Davante Adams gone, more stress is placed on the rest of the Packers roster. Clearly, Gutekunst and the rest of the front office hope that the defense can play a major part in picking up the slack. Though the offseason moves will go a long way to boosting the unit, the defense’s ceiling will be partially determined by internal improvements. Here are three players who need to take a step to maximize the defense’s performance in 2022.
2021 was an up-and-down season for Savage. Although the former first-round pick played well at points, he also had some disappointing stretches. Green Bay’s Quarters-based defense places a great deal of stress on its safeties. Quarters safeties have to be able to guard vertical routes from slot receivers and tight ends, while simultaneously looking for intermediate routes entering the middle of the field. In addition to their coverage responsibilities, Quarters safeties often have responsibility for diagnosing and fitting runs from depth.
Because of the complex nature of the coverage, safeties in Quarters have a lot to deal with mentally, and their play has a large role in determining whether the defense is effective. The experienced Adrian Amos helped the 2021 defense operate at a decent level for much of the season. Unfortunately, his counterpart struggled at times. Although Savage showed some excellent coverage ability for parts of the year, he ran into trouble towards the middle stretch of the season. Notably, he was burnt multiple times by Ravens tight end Mark Andrews. Whether or not this was an issue of confidence and comfortability in the defense is hard to say. Regardless, improved play from Savage could enable the defense to reach the next level in 2022. If fully unlocked, his playmaking ability in the back end could truly turn the Packers secondary into a nightmare for opposing offenses.
Another critical role in Joe Barry’s Quarters defense is the EDGE position. Because of the defense’s tendency to use light boxes, players on the defensive front are tasked with eating up multiple gaps and spilling runs onto the perimeter. EDGE players play a critical role in this process. They have to be able to hold their own against offensive tackles and tight ends, controlling gaps on both sides of their blocker. This process strings out runs and gives the secondary time to come up and make the tackle. The Packers have two high-quality starting OLBs in Rashan Gary and Preston Smith. Unfortunately, the depth on the edge is a question mark. Garvin played significant time as a backup OLB last season, but frequently disappointed both as a run defender and a pass rusher.
In order to reach dominance in 2022, the Green Bay defense needs quality snaps from its backups as well as its starters. The EDGE position is no exception. Hopefully, Kingsley Enagbare can help address that need, but it’s hard to place significant expectations on a 5th round rookie. Improved play from Jonathan Garvin could be critical in allowing the Green Bay defense to maintain consistent excellence throughout the season.
EDGE isn’t the only position group that could benefit from an internal boost in quality depth. Just like the Packers OLBs, interior defensive lineman have to be able to play multiple gaps in Barry’s two-high safety defense. Slaton flashed impressive strength and ability to defend the run in 2021. However, he was plagued by inconsistency, especially early in the year. A second-year jump could boost Green Bay’s run defense and allow the rest of the Packers DL to stay fresher and more effective.
An expanded role for Slaton could have other benefits as well. If he takes a step and can consistently play quality snaps at nose tackle, it would free up the defense to move Kenny Clark around to exploit offensive lines. In addition, giving Clark fewer snaps at NT could lessen the wear and tear on the star DT. With fewer double teams and smashmouth blocks to deal with, Clark could see greater effectiveness in the latter half of the season.
The Packers have a lot riding on their defense in 2022. Their offseason additions will play a large role in determining if the unit can meet those expectations. However, there are a few key areas where I believe the Packers need to see internal improvement in order for the defense to reach its ceiling. Getting improved play from Darnell Savage, Jonathan Garvin, and T.J. Slaton will go a long way towards boosting the defense to a Super Bowl-worthy unit.
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