Packers DL depth and new play style could result in hockey-like rotations

By: Paul Bretl 6/7/24

The Green Bay Packers’ depth along their defensive front, coupled with the attacking play style that this unit is asked to play with under Jeff Hafley, could result in a hockey-like rotation during games in an effort to keep everyone fresh.

Between the defensive tackle and defensive end positions, nine different players were relied upon regularly each week last season. While the depth of the receiver room on this Packers’ team is what garners a lot of the attention – and understandably so – Matt LaFleur is quite fond of the depth in the defensive trenches as well.

“I think much similar to the receiving group, we feel really good about our front,” said LaFleur after Tuesday’s practice. “When you’ve got RG and Preston and J.J. and then inside you’ve got Kenny Clark, Heavy D, Karl Brooks, Colby Wooden, I mean, there’s a lot of players there. T.J. Slaton. Like, we feel really good about the collective unit and I think each one of those guys is going to get more 1-on-1 opportunities along the way because it’s hard to zero in on just one guy.”

The need to heavily rotate players up front is twofold for the Packers. On the one hand, when there is quality depth, naturally, you want to get each of those players snaps. However, given the more aggressive play style of this group, which means more energy being exerted, a constant rotation – like line changes in hockey – is required to maximize the impact of each player.

In Joe Barry’s two-gap defense, as the name suggests, each member of the defensive line was responsible for two gaps, tasked with reading the movements of the offensive line and the backfield, then determining which gap was the most vulnerable and trying to fill it. Interior defenders are more so space eaters in this style of defense, helping to create opportunities for the edge rushers and linebackers to make the plays.

In Hafley’s defense, however, with the defensive line responsible for only one gap, there should be a much more proactive play style instead of reactive, with the front asked to get north and south quickly, penetrating their way into the backfield, rather than reacting to what the offense is doing. The job is to get north and south as quickly as possible.

“Individual group has been crazy,” said Kenny Clark during OTAs. “When we do drills and stuff I’m like, ‘Damn.’ We’ve got like a big group of defensive linemen now, so it’s going to be a lot different. But with this system, you’ve got to play like that. You can’t be out there like six snaps in a row and exert that much energy and make an impact on this defense. 

“With this defense, you’ve got to be able to go and really get off the ball and give that energy and that effort every single play. So, we’ll definitely be rotating a lot this season.”

With depth comes a wide variety of skill sets. From a game-planning perspective, there is a layer of unpredictability that the Packers’ front can have, allowing for Hafley to mix-and-match his rotations from week-to-week depending upon the opponent. This can even be taken a step further if there is going to be movement between the defensive end and defensive tackle position groups. 

There is also the ability to maximize those individual skill sets by putting each player in specific situations where they can thrive rather than having blanket rotations that are utilized regardless of the situation.

Collectively, this is a position group that the Packers need more consistency from this season. The Green Bay pass rush was very hot and cold last season, while they ranked 23rd in yards per carry, which includes a league-high four games where they allowed 200-plus rushing yards.

Improvement for the Packers’ defense as a whole starts up front. Slowing the run means putting the offense in predictable passing situations, and we all know how valuable quarterback pressures are in today’s game.

Although many are fixated on the new-look Packers’ secondary with the addition of Hafley as the defensive coordinator, what the defensive front is asked to do and potentially the way they are rotated could end up being quite the contrast from what we’ve seen in recent years.

“Anytime you’re trying to create things in the backfield, you’ve got to have the whole group swarm to make the play,” said defensive line coach Jason Rebrovich. “Can’t just be one guy making the tackle.

“So, you’ve got to make sure when you are creating a new line of scrimmage, when you are working to get in the backfield, there’s other guys that are going to converge. You can’t just sit there and watch one guy try and work to make one play.”