Tuesday, June 25, 2024
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New Packers DC Jeff Hafley ‘brings out the best of us,’ challenges HC Matt LaFleur, says Green Bay defender

Practice for the Green Bay Packers defense has taken on a significantly different tone under new defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley. 

Former Green Bay DC Joe Barry, who had worked with Packers head coach Matt LaFleur on Sean McVay’s Los Angeles coaching staff in 2017, didn’t challenge LaFleur, who is the team’s offensive play caller in nearly the same way Hafley does now for the defense. According to Green Bay cornerback and All-Pro returner Keisean Nixon, Hafley’s intensity is raising the Packers’ defensive level to new heights by doing so. 

“I like Haf. Man, Haf is a cool dude,” Nixon said smiling on “Up & Adams” with Kay Adams on Monday. “Short guy, so he kind of got little man syndrome I think. He is competitive as hell. He goes at [head coach] Matt LaFleur, which is something new for me. He brings the best out of us, and we like playing for him. This defense is ready to go for sure.”

Hafley spent four seasons as Boston College’s head coach (2020-2023) prior to taking the Packers defensive coordinator job, but he returns to the NFL seven seasons of coaching experience in the league with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (secondary/safeties coach from 2012-2013), Cleveland Browns (defensive backs coach from 2014-2015) and San Francisco 49ers (defensive backs coach from 2016-2018). Hafley promised to play a more aggressive, press man coverage style of defense in his introductory press conference, a stark contrast to Barry’s zone-based scheme, and so far he is making good on that promise in organized team activities and minicamp. Challenging LaFleur and his offensive scheme is apparently something Barry didn’t do during his three seasons running Green Bay’s defense from 2021-23. 

“He’s not scared of a head coach being an offensive guy,” Nixon said. “Some coaches compliment offensive coaches in practice and stuff like that, but Haf came in right away blitzing on third down, stuff like that. He was ready to go. Jeff is a competitive guy. He is a defensive back coach also, so he brings that. I’ve never had that in the league. I’ve never had my DC be the DB guy too, so it’s kind of running through the back end. I think it’s a great idea. I think it’s a great fit for me. I think it’s a great decision.

“[Hafley] goes at him [LaFleur]. It don’t matter what Matt says, we’re going to compete for sure,” Nixon continued. “I think some coaches compliment offensive coaches if they’re the head coach, and I think Haf came in not really caring about that. He cares about, ‘How can I get my guys on defense to play as the best defense in the league.’ That’s really what [Hafley] was on.”

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Given that Hafley’s scheme will likely put a lot of responsibility on the Packers’ secondary, it’s of the upmost importance that high-priced free agent safety Xavier McKinney, who signed a four-year $67 million after four seasons with the New York Giants, lives up to his contract. Pro Football Focus graded him as the NFL’s top cover safety in 2023 (91.2 coverage grade) after he snagged three interceptions while not surrendering a single passing touchdown last season. McKinney’s 41.4 passer rating as the primary defender in coverage ranked as the seventh best in the entire NFL among the 146 players with at least 50 passes thrown their way last season. So far, McKinney, who turns 26 years old on Aug. 8, appears very capable of maintaining that level in Green Bay. 

“I think X can fit in any defense honestly,” Nixon said of the McKinney signing. “He brings range in the back end, and he’s really smart and communicates. He is also a good character guy. When he came around, it was easy [for him] to gel with me and (cornerback) Jaire (Alexander). He’s going to be good. I think he is really going to help us a lot.”

If the additions of Hafley and McKinney can make as big of a difference as Nixon is observing in June, then the NFL’s youngest team may be closer than many think to bringing the Vince Lombardi trophy back home to Titletown. 

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