Focus for Jeff Hafley is on digestible game plans so Packers defenders play fast

Putting together a gameplan to stop the opposing offense actually isn’t the most important aspect for a defensive coordinator. This is step two. Rather, putting together a gameplan that the defenders can flawlessly execute is step one. The former doesn’t matter if the latter isn’t applicable.

The concept sounds simple: put players in positions where they can be successful. However, that’s not always a given either.

But for new Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley, whether you ask Matt LaFleur, or some of Hafley’s former players like Jordan Fuller, Richard Sherman, or Tashaun Gipson, the ability to keep things simple is where he has excelled as a coach.

“Honestly Haf would put so much stuff in where you knew what to expect when the game came,” said 49ers safety Tashaun Gipson, who played under Hafley for two seasons in Cleveland. “So the game was easy. He is that type of coach that it’s so easy, he’s going to make it easy and you just go out and do your God-given.

“Haf is one of the best that I have been around and I have been around for a long time. He was one of the closer coaches that I had the opportunity to be with. Haf taught me the game from a different lens and I am just so appreciative of him for it. He is a great coach and an even better person.”

One of the issues that the Packers ran into with Joe Barry as the defensive coordinator was there were too often missed assignments, which in the passing game led to coverage breakdowns and easy catch and run opportunities, while on the ground, poor gap integrity resulted in chunk runs.

The root cause of these consistent issues were either a gameplan that players weren’t able to routinely digest, or a breakdown in the communication of the gameplan, whether that be from Barry to the position coaches, or the position coaches to the players. Chances are it was some combination of everything just described.

“You’ve heard the term paralysis by analysis,” said LaFleur when meeting with reporters on Thursday. “Sometimes you give guys too much information and they’re looking at too many things and it’s how do you get it into a singular focus so that they can go out there and play at a high level and play fast and play without hesitation. So, how can you give ‘em, because I do believe there’s a fine line because you want to give ‘em as much information as they can handle.

“But I think part of that is knowing your personnel. Some guys can handle more than others and so you’ve got to get to know your players and try to figure out how much they can do and how much they can handle, and I think when you look at our team, especially this year, I think that was part of our issue early on, early in the season when we were struggling.”

Players having a full understanding of not only what their responsibilities are but also the why behind what they are being asked to do allows them to play faster with their natural abilities taking over. They see, they react, they make a play.

Although on the offensive side of the ball, AJ Dillon and running backs coach Ben Sirmans were working through this exact thing last season. As Sirmans says, “if you think, you stink.” Early on in 2023 and even in 2022, when Dillon was struggling to get going there was hesitancy from oftentimes overthinking. But when he was at his best, he was just playing football and reacting to what he saw.

“The things I believe in defense,” said Hafley, “whether you’re playing 3-4 or 4-3, press man which I do love, zone coverages, vision and break, quarters, match, it comes down to can you take your players who you have and put them in the best position to succeed? And can you take your players and maximize their ability? Like, every player wants to get better, and that’s our job to do.”

There is, of course, a balance that Hafley has to strike. He wants his defenders playing fast but the scheme also can’t be oversimplified, making it easy for opposing offenses to pick apart either.

To a degree, this is what the Packers offense ran into in the early portion of last season. In an effort to help the young players out, LaFleur and the coaching staff tried to simplify things but moving the ball was still an impossible task at times because the defense knew what was coming. Things began to turnaround for this unit once the training wheels came off, so to speak, and the coaches had a better understanding of what each player could handle responsibility-wise.

Especially early on in Hafley’s tenure, different players are going to have a different amount of responsibilities that they will be accountable for, depending on what they can handle. As the season progresses, the obvious hope is that more duties can be added as each player gets more comfortable, allowing the defense as a whole to do more things.

“Our job is to put the players in the best position to succeed and make plays,” added Hafley, “and that’s through scheme, right? People can say a lot of the scheme is simpler, but it’s very detailed.

“We try and make it simple for the players so they can play fast, so they don’t have to think, so they can be confident and not be afraid to make mistakes, so I can get them the information – we can get them the information – that they need, so they can go out there and be fearless and play with their hair on fire and run and hit and cover and get off blocks and tackle. That’s the beauty of the scheme.”

Given what we’ve seen from Hafley’s defenses at his previous stops we can try to glean what we may see more of or less of from the Packers in 2024, such as more press-man, more Cover-1 looks, and a lot more third down blitzes.

While all of that is probably true – to what extent we will have to wait and see – Hafley is going to remain flexible and be willing to adjust based on the opponent and situation. Again, this sounds simple, but it was the week-to-week predictability of the Packers defense in 2023 that contributed to their issues.

When Hafley was asked about where Quay Walker will line up in his 4-3 defense, he said Walker is a playmaker and will go where he can make the most plays.

When asked about sending pressure and how creative does he get with the types of blitzes, Hafley said there are certain down and distances where you have to get “exotic” and some down and distances where dialing up pressures won’t be a must. Hafley also emphasized the importance of generating pressure consistently.

Having just arrived less than two weeks ago to Green Bay, Hafley is still in the discovery process and figuring out how to best utilize the current Packers players. But his responses show a coach that is going to fit his scheme to the players and the opponent rather than saying this is the defense we run, at times fitting square pegs into round holes.

“That’s part of being a great teacher,” Hafley said. “You sit in those meetings sometimes and you go over so many different things and you have this idea and this idea and this idea and you scratch that off, you’ve always got to keep in mind what are they going to be able to learn? What are they going to be able to play really, really fast and excel at?

“I can come up with a great blitz and it might be check it to 3-by-1, 2-by-2, empty, bunch, motion here, and draw it on paper and think I’m the smartest coach alive. And then I can put it in and, if it doesn’t work, I can blame the players. But that’s not good coaching and it’s not good teaching. What can they handle where they can execute at a high level and succeed at it? That’s so important for us to understand is we put stuff in and that’s why you can’t overload them.”

Story originally appeared on Packers Wire