Understanding the ‘why’ leads to fast, physical play for Packers’ defense

By: Paul Bretl 6/13/24

Putting players in positions to make plays sounds like a simple and obvious concept, but it is much easier said than done. Otherwise, we would see just about every defense playing at a high level.

However, for new Green Bay Packers’ defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley, this is an area where he excels–his ability to teach. Just ask a few of his former players like Jordan Fuller or Tashaun Gipson or Richard Sherman.

“His preparation is some of the best I’ve seen,” said cornerback Richard Sherman, who was coached by Hafley in San Francisco. “I’ve had some great defensive back coaches, some great defensive coaches, great defensive minds, and he’s right up there with his preparation and how he breaks down film and how easy and simple he makes the gameplan sound. How easy he makes it for guys to understand. He paints a very vivid picture of what you’re going to see, and it’s all about executing on it.”

Accomplishing this doesn’t begin with putting together a gameplan that, on paper, looks like it will wreak havoc for opposing offenses. Instead the goal is to put together a gameplan that can be flawlessly executed on by the defenders and that starts with the basics and paying attention to the finer details.

“It’s definitely fine detailing in his system,” said Preston Smith. “Everybody has a role and everybody has a responsibility. Nobody gets a pass in no way or shape or form. Everybody has a responsibility in each call and anything. You kind of know the responsibility in the run game and the pass for everybody.”

For a large portion of offseason programs, while yes, the Packers were working on implementing Hafley’s new defensive scheme, the focus for many of those days was on the fundamentals and technique because without those elements being properly executed on, not much else matters, as Hafley put it.

There is also a heavy emphasis on the players understanding the ‘why’ behind what they are being asked to do. Why they are lined up a certain way. Why they have this certain responsibility. Why their teammates are filling that role.

When the why behind the play is understood, there is more clarity around the task at hand, how the individual responsibilities work together to achieve the ultimate goal, and perhaps most importantly, confidence–which leads to fast play.

“I love Jeff,” said Carrington Valentine. “He pushes us. He tells us the whys, the ins and outs. We’re just not going out there lining up. We’re understanding of why we’re doing stuff and I’m learning a lot.”

Hafley creates digestible gameplans for his defenders to go out and execute on, however, don’t mistake digestible for simple. This is a defense that will use post-snap movement to help disguise coverages and blitz from different parts of the field to cause some chaos. The gameplans are digestible because there is a deep understanding by all 11 players about what they’re being asked to do–and why. 

Good coaches – and teachers – are always mindful of what their players can learn in the allotted timeframe that they have to implement what they’re working on. Hafley can dial up the perfect defensive play call based on the situation, but if it’s not executed properly, it doesn’t matter how good the play looked on paper.

When players are confident in their fundamentals and technique and have a clear understanding of not only their role but the roles of their teammates, the gameplan can look ‘simplified’ because the end result is fast and physical play. Rather than overthinking, players are reacting and letting their natural abilities take over. As Packers’ running back coach Ben Sirmans has said, “when you think, you stink.”

“That makes a big difference knowing why you’re doing something on the field,” said Edgerrin Cooper, “because you start putting everybody pieces together and so now you can just sit there and relax your eyes and play ball.”

Right now, it’s not only the players who are learning Hafley’s system, but Hafley and the defensive coaches are learning as well, figuring out the strength of each player and in what situations they can be the most successful in.

Of course, any successful gameplan is going to fully utilize the strengths of each player. However, that’s just part of the equation. Putting defenders in a position to make plays on Sundays doesn’t solely revolve around where the players are asked to line up or what they’re asked to do. It begins with acute attention to the finer details and how the gameplan is taught and communicated so everyone understands the why behind it all.

“Pretty much everything, to be honest with you,” said Quay Walker when asked what stands out about Hafley’s defense. “It’s a lot of stuff that I did in college that I think translates very well for a lot of us. I think it fits what we do.

“I think not only that — I think Haf doing a great job so far of putting us in the right position. Whatever the case may be, I just think his attention to details and everything like that and how we are so far, but everything stands out about the defense because it’s similar to what I’ve done before. Not only that, but a lot of guys, as well, so I love it so far.”