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Packers CBs could benefit greatly from addition of new defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley

We still don’t completely know what style of defense new defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley is going to run in Green Bay, but his history says that the Packers’ cornerback room, in particular, is going to benefit quite a bit.

According to PFF, Hafley’s Boston College defenses during the 2021 and 2022 seasons led all of college football in playing Cover-1. In 2023, they ranked fifth. Playing out of single-high safety looks puts your cornerbacks in a lot of man coverage situations.

Given who the Packers currently have at cornerback on the roster, that style better fits their personnel. At his best, Jaire Alexander is one of the best cover corners in football. Eric Stokes and Carrington Valentine, meanwhile, spent the bulk of their college careers at Georgia and Kentucky, respectively, playing man coverage.

“I think obviously he’s worked in a lot of different systems,” said Brian Gutekunst about Hafley. “He’s very flexible that way, and again, as he gets to know our personnel more, and obviously he’s been in college and working at Boston College the last four years, but as he gets to know our personnel I think his thoughts will kind of work more towards exactly what he wants to do.

“But our initial conversations, and obviously Matt had a lot more than I did, but just really excited about some of his thoughts and where he could take our roster.”

With Hafley at the helm in comparison to Joe Barry, based on what we’ve seen from him in previous seasons, more five and six-man pressures could be in the cards as well. This was especially true on third downs, where Boston College ranked second in the ACC last season in blitz rate on third-down passes.

Of course, added pressure on the quarterback is always going to benefit the secondary, specifically the cornerbacks. It means less time in coverage, errant throws, and often turnover opportunities.

Hafley’s previous NFL experience is also rooted in working with defensive backs. He got his start in the NFL back in 2012 as the assistant defensive backs coach with Tampa Bay. He was quickly promoted to defensive backs coach in 2013 and held that role through the 2018 season, also spending time in Cleveland and San Francisco.

Hafley has worked with some impressive cornerbacks, including Ronde Barber, Darrelle Revis, and 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.”

Although Hafley utilized a heavy dose of single-high and man coverage looks, he’s shown a willingness to adjust as well. This includes playing a bit more 2-high or quarters coverage looks in 2023, in part because of his personnel on defense and the opponents Boston College faced, along with varying coverage looks for the quarterback pre and post-snap to cause some confusion. All of which will, again, benefit the Packers’ cornerbacks.

Of course, all of that sounds simple, but it was a lack of timely adjustments that burned the Packer’s defense and oftentimes made things from a coverage standpoint quite predictable because it seemed like regardless of the opponent or what had happened the week prior, the looks from Green Bay were often similar.

The way Baker Mayfield and the Tampa Bay offense shredded the Packers’ secondary by playing pitch and catch is a prime example of this.

Adding to the cornerback room will have to be a priority for Brian Gutekunst this offseason. From a depth standpoint, outside of Alexander, Stokes, and Valentine, only Anthony Johnson and Zyon Gilbert are on the roster. The Packers also need to figure out who is going to play in the slot.

What this group was really missing last season was the consistent ability to make plays on the ball. No Packers’ cornerback ranked in the top half of the position group league-wide in forced incompletions. The Packers’ defense as a unit forced only seven interceptions, the second-fewest last season.

In part, when you trade away Rasul Douglas, along with Alexander and Stokes dealing with injuries, that’s going to happen. However, Barry’s heavy use of shell coverages, where the name of the game for the secondary was keeping everything in front of them, coupled with his passive approach, leading to a lot of off-coverages, didn’t put the Green Bay cornerbacks in the best position to regularly make plays on the ball either.

“I think the back end is probably where we weren’t as consistent as we needed to be,” said Gutekunst on Thursday, “and I’d like that to be shored up. There will probably be some moving pieces there going into next year, but it’s kind of like it always is, I want a fast physical, aggressive defense that plays sound.

“And again, I thought there were some really, really good moments, particularly late where we were playing some very good football teams and they played very well. But the consistency is what I always look for.”

Hafley has been the first to admit that the college game and the NFL are quite different from each other. So what we saw his teams do defensively at Ohio State and Boston College isn’t going to be an apples-to-apples comparison of what he does in Green Bay.

It very much feels like Hafley is going to mold his system around the personnel in Green Bay, rather than trying to fit the players into a specific scheme. As Gutekunst said, Hafley is “very flexible that way.”

However, every coach as core fundamentals that they believe in, and for Hafley, what he has shown in his previous stops in that regard is a good sign for the Packers’ cornerbacks, even if not utilized to the same extent in the NFL.

“I’ve started to adapt,” said Hafley in a recent interview on Next Up. “Create different one-high shells which really play like two-high shells and get extra guys in the box. You’ve just got to stop the quarterback run game. When I talk to my friends in the NFL and we talk defense together, it’s almost a different game. The quarterback in the NFL, they’re going to run it in big moments or in the red zone or on third down or in a championship game, right?

“But you can’t do that week in and week out. You’ve got to account for an extra guy. So you’ve got to change. I joke sometimes, “unbalanced,” you can’t do that in the NFL. We’re defending unbalanced formations. There’s a field and a boundary in college football, where in the NFL, the balls in the middle of the field the entire game. It’s a different game and it’s been fun to follow it.”

Story originally appeared on Packers Wire