‘Building a fast and physical’ Packers defense starts with fundamentals for Jeff Hafley

By: Paul Bretl 5/7/24

While the Packers make the shift to new defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley’s system, which includes transitioning from a 3-4 base defense to a 4-3, the emphasis at this time of the year is on fundamentals and technique. Without those aspects, nothing else really matters.

“There’s nothing more important than fundamentals and technique,” said Hafley on Monday. “Whether it’s the D-line getting off the ball and working on their stance and starts, whether it’s a guy learning how to play man to man or zone drop and where to put his eyes and what to do and how to react when certain things happen, tackling and attacking the football, the things are going to be most important during a game, taking on a block, where to put their eyes, getting off the block.

“Those are the things you’ve got to teach these guys because without that, you can’t play, right? And that whether you’re hitting a sled or tackling a bag. You can’t take those things for granted. We want to diagram all these blitzes and all these coverages, which we all can do, but if we’re not playing fast and physical and getting off blocks and tackling then none of that matters.”

That’s the goal: fast and physical. It’s a phrase we’ve heard countless times over the last week-and-a-half since the NFL draft, but it’s a big part of Hafley’s recipe for success.

If Step 1 of this implementation process is having the players become really good at the fundamentals of playing defense, then Step 2 for Hafley and his staff is figuring out where each of these defenders is at their best so they can be put into positions to make plays.

As Hafley gets to know the Packers defenders better, both on the field and who they are off of it, he will insert them into different spots to see how they fit and will move them around if necessary. Rather than fitting the players to the scheme, even if at times it’s like putting a square peg into a round hole, Hafley will mold his scheme to the skill sets that his players bring to the table to get the most out of them.

“So that’s what we’re going to teach them right now,” said Hafley about the fundamentals, “and then you start to insert them where we feel they fit, and then we’ve got a pretty good defense. 

“Because it’s still about the players. It’s not about the scheme right now. It’s about the players. It’s our job to maximize their ability, which I talked to you guys about when I got here. And now that we see what we have, we’ve got to make sure we do that. And that’s why you love coming to work every day right now. It’s just football again, and these guys are so bought in.”

With all of that said, it’s not as if Hafley and the position coaches haven’t been implementing his new scheme on the practice field during Phase II of offseason programs or in the classroom–they absolutely are.

However, Hafley’s point is that, to a degree, the scheme at this stage of the offseason takes a back seat to fundamentals and learning about where each of the defenders fits best. These two elements will result in fast and physical play, helping to elevate the scheme. Whereas, on the flip side, without those factors, the scheme doesn’t much matter.

“One, we had the staff here, so we sat down and we kind of looked at our vision of what we wanted this defense to be,” said Hafley on implementing his defense. “And then you decide what you want to install early and see how much we can get in in this short time that we have. And then you look at all the meeting time that we’ve been able to get with these guys, and you have a lot of time in the classroom, so we just kind of mapped out our installation, we detailed the fundamentals and techniques of the coverages that we want to play first. 

“And we’re kind of going from part to whole, right? We’re teaching certain drops, we’re teaching certain coverages, and then we’re kind of showing them how they can plug-and-play and become a whole bunch of different coverages. So we’re kind of stressing the fundamentals and techniques within the coverages because without those I don’t think you can be good at anything.”

As Hafley goes through this process, there is a certain balance that has to be struck when relying heavily on several rookies at linebacker and safety. With versatility being so important to Hafley’s defense, he will, of course, want to maximize those abilities within the players, but he also has to make sure they get comfortable and really good in one or two specific areas. 

Accomplishing this involves circling back to Steps 1 and 2 of the process, which is fundamentals, and putting the players where Hafley believes they can make the biggest impact.

For returning players, there will be an adjustment as well, and at some positions more than others. The defensive front is going to be attacking, as Hafley put it. This isn’t going to be a passive read-and-react front. Instead, they’re job is to get upfield and get after the quarterback.

At linebacker, there will be heavy coverage responsibilities, while the cornerbacks will see more man coverage opportunities, and the safeties will be lined up in Cover-1 more often.

“For the D-line, they’re going to be asked to do some different things than they would playing in 3-4 spacing,” Hafley said. “Some are going to have their hand down on the ground more. But when it comes to getting off blocks and tackling, those guys have all done that. It’s just sharpening it, making it better. 

“But there’s certainly some things in coverage that are going to be new, and that’s what we’re trying to spend the most amount of time on now so they get a good understanding. I think that’s going to be process and our job is as we go just to keep getting better and faster and get better at it and get faster at because they have to be comfortable.”

Whether it has been Matt LaFleur or some of Hafley’s former players like Jordan Fuller, Tashaun Gipson, or Richard Sherman, all of them have praised Hafley for his ability as a teacher and to keep the gameplan simple so players are out on the field reacting rather than overthinking.

That’s a simple concept, but one that isn’t always easily attainable either. Seeing that play style come to fruition in September starts with what is being done in early May by building a unit that plays fast and physical, and ultimately, that will create a confident group that is able to thrive in the new system.

“Like I talk about,” added Hafley, “I want a defense that’s going to be confident, and it’s not going to be nervous about making mistakes. Play style’s important to me and how fast we play and physical and attacking the ball and all that stuff, but the only way to do that is they’ve got to know what they’re doing. 

“So you teach all those things we talked about, then you learn the scheme and then you let them go play. So there are some things that are new, but the cool part is is right now they’re all buying in and really focusing on learning it and that’s what gives us a chance each day when we come in. So give those guys credit for that.”