All Eyes on Offense, Packers’ Defense Poised to Lead Team in 2021

Jaire Alexander Among Defensive Leaders Seeking Lombardi Trophy

Jaire Alexander (By: All-Pro Reels, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

The Green Bay Packers’ offense has acquired all of the headlines this offseason, both locally and nationally.

No NFL team or offense has been more talked about over the last few months.

Going beyond the obvious headlines on offense, the team ‘finally’ brought in a new, highly-touted wide receiver for Aaron Rodgers to utilize in Amari Rodgers. We say ‘finally’ because the narrative that Rodgers didn’t have weapons on offense prior to this is, and has always been, laughable.

Quite frankly, the Packers’ offense is absolutely stacked at every position.

Green Bay’s offense led the NFL in scoring in 2020, putting up an impressive 31.8 points per game. Much of that core is still in Green Bay. There is absolutely no reason to think that this offense will suddenly forget how to score.

Wide receiver Davante Adams is a superstar, left tackle David Bakhtiari is a superstar, running back Aaron Jones is a borderline superstar. The same can be said for guard Elgton Jenkins and maybe even for tight end Robert Tonyan. Oh, and then there’s that three-time AP MVP quarterback coming off a 51 total touchdown season.

Stacked.

Even so, we believe 2021 is actually going to be the year of the defense and its young stars in Titletown USA. If this team takes that next big step, and it’s an enormous if, it is going to be on the defensive side of the ball.

This defense is ready to be special, as we explain below.

OK, now let’s get the obvious out of the way. The Packers’ 2021 season will be greatly impacted by Aaron Rodgers’ decision to play for the team or not. Obviously he’s a massive part of this team and the reigning league MVP. So for the sake of this article, let’s just assume he’ll be in Green Bay this fall.

He is under contract after all. He hasn’t said he won’t be back.

Although, it has to be mentioned, the Packers’ defense becomes even more important if he doesn’t rejoin the team. Right? So really, the point stands either way: 2021 is the year for the defense to shine under new defensive coordinator Joe Barry.

Now we are incredibly entertained by the irony of Green Bay’s offense getting all of the attention heading into the 2021 season.

Is the attention deserved?

Well, we did mention how stacked this unit is. Just to drive the point home, the Packers’ offense features a new wide receiver that fans already love, a playbook that has grown significantly in nuance, an aggressive play caller in Head Coach Matt LaFleur, the best receiver in the league, the top deep threat, perhaps the best rushing duo in the NFL, an elite left tackle recovering from an ACL injury in record time, one of the most versatile linemen, the league MVP maybe playing for the team and a talented-young-polarizing quarterback hanging somewhere in the balance.

Quite a bit to unpack there. This offense, with all of those very-real storylines, is intriguing.

Yet it’s the defense that will determine the Packers’ ultimate place in the league this year and beyond — legitimate dreams of confetti start right there.

Packers fans have seen their team boast the best offense many times in recent years without adding a Lombardi Trophy to the case. ‘It is time’ to look at the other side of the ball. This isn’t to say the offense won’t be great, don’t hear that! We’re simply saying the defense is going to be more responsible for wins than they have in a decade.

‘It is time’ for this core of Packers to play in a Super Bowl. And in this piece we’ll explain how and why it is finally not just going to be the offense leading the way.

Say it with us now:

“D-fence…dun dun…D-fense…dun dun”

Youth Movement

This defense isn’t just talented, it’s young.

That’s the golden duality all defensive coordinators dream of working with. Which means Joe Barry has no excuse if he doesn’t find success with this group as soon as this year.

To have experienced playmakers that are still this young leading this charge? It’s a recipe for a rare defensive attack.

One of the definitive leaders of this defensive attack is cornerback Jaire Alexander. He’s the best cornerback in the league, in our opinion, and he’s the first Packer to own that title since Charles Woodson did a little more than a decade ago. Alexander is still only 24 years old, somehow, entering his fourth NFL season. 24!

He’s the definitive leader of the young players on this team, but he isn’t alone.

Safety Darnell Savage was the next commitment General Manager Brian Gutekunst made in finding impactful young stars in the defensive backfield that could grow into absolute game-changers. They traded up and then put him on the field right away and they let him learn on the job.

It’s safe to say that this ‘trial by fire’ approach to Savage’s development is paying off. He has gotten better with each game played and his instincts are beginning to match his unquestioned speed.

Savage’s five turnovers amassed in 2020 are foreshadowing for a much bigger 2021, at least, that’s how we see it. His impact plays doubled from his first season to his second; look for that trend to continue.

The next young breakout player on this defense was taken earlier in the 2019 draft — edge rusher Rashan Gary. The ‘Pack’ did with Gary the opposite of what they did with Savage. Every player is different and different approaches should be taken when it comes to development.

In year one they played Gary sparingly. The Packers let him learn on the practice field and they protected him, his psyche and his confidence. This approach is similarly paying off as he’s poised to be this defense’s biggest breakout star in 2021.

Gary’s quarterback hits jumped from three as a rookie to 11 as a second-year player. Hopefully it exponentially jumps this fall.

However the biggest star of this trifecta of talent, the brightest of the bunch and undeniably the coolest — that’s the aforementioned Jaire Alexander. He is already a proven star and he embraces all of it. He’ll be a First Team All-Pro candidate for years to come; he has no ceiling when it comes to talent or production.

And we haven’t even gotten to nose tackle yet. Newly drafted T.J. Slaton, a massive body who will look to stuff the run from day one, will learn from Kenny Clark. Speaking of Clark, the Pro Bowl nose tackle will still only be 26 years old during the 2021 season. The five year pro is still young.

Add in linebackers Krys Barnes and Kamal Martin and then ascending defensive end Kingsley Keke and, wow, the youth on this team is ready to play in 2021.

We take that back, they’re ready to star in 2021 and beyond.

New defensive coordinator Joe Barry will be looked to be the straw that stirs the drink. He’ll be counted on to use primarily the same collection of talent on defense, but bring a new level of confidence and creativity to the attack.

He has worked his way up in the NFL, having coached in some capacity for seven different NFL teams and a handful of college teams. Barry played linebacker in college for Michigan and USC, but has spent his professional career coaching.

Before coming to Green Bay, Barry spent four years with the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams had one of the best defenses in the NFL over that span, as he coached the linebackers and served as assistant head coach. Hopefully he can take that experience and success and bring the Packers their best defense in over a decade.

What makes this defense so special you ask? Well…

Talent At All Four Levels

This defense has definitive stars at nearly every level of the defense. We’re of the mind that it’ll be known for having a standout player at every level by the time the 2021 season nears its end (see The Middle section below for more on that).

Up Front:

The Packers have a unique amount of talent at all four levels of their defense for the first time, perhaps, since the 2010 Packers. Remember anything special about that team?

Up front the Packers are led by Kenny Clark in the middle at nose tackle. For the first time in his career Green Bay has actually brought in a legitimately exciting, young talent to play beside him (and learn from him) in the trenches. T.J. Slaton out of Florida, 6’4″ and 330 pounds, is the true run-stuffer to complement Clark’s more agile abilities.

Clark has, apparently, slimmed-down a bit and will look to be more of a pass rusher first in 2021 — as opposed to the true nose tackle he’s played so far in his career. Twice he’s amassed six sacks in a season, but he’s in a good position set a new career high this fall.

On the rest of the defensive line there is a healthy competition and depth. The semantics of the positions are blurred, but at defensive end the Packers boast Tyler Lancaster, Dean Lowry and Kinglsey Keke. The three of them will compete for premier playing time, but will rotate often throughout every game in 2021. Again, depending on where Clark lines up from week to week will shake up this rotation, too.

Our money is on Keke to become the biggest playmaker of the three.

But letting a player like Clark harness the true potential of his athletic ability should be frightening every quarterback in the league. Just imagine if he can disrupt the quarterback with more frequency in 2021 than ever before? Goodness.

The Edge:

This is obviously one of the strengths of this defense.

This position group is also home to the defense’s leader. Hell, lets be honest. He’s the leader of the whole damn team.

You know who we are talking about… Za’Darius Smith or ‘Z’.

‘Z’ has averaged a sack in 82% of his games with the Packers. That’s the highest mark in franchise history (minimum 30 games played). After two years in Green Bay, he has lived up to all of the hype.

Pairing rising star Rashan Gary, with an equally intimidating frame, with ‘Z’ could propel this defense to the next level. We’re talking top five in the league territory or even higher. However for that to happen the Packers are probably counting on Preston Smith returning to his 2019 production levels. He’s kind of the forgotten man on this defense, but a crucial member of the team.

If Preston Smith returns to his previous level of play, this defense will have unbelievable depth at one of the premier positions on the field. In some ways, he’s this defense’s x-factor. If he can regain his former impact, it’s like adding a coveted free agent pass rusher without losing an asset.

‘Z’ is going to continue to play with an unbelievable motor, we know that, and Gary has the skills to put up 12+ sacks in 2021. In fact, if he stays healthy we’d call that the floor for Gary this fall. That’s how big of a jump he’s going to take. And ‘Z’ should be right there with him or even leading the way.

Now imagine if Preston also puts up 10+ sacks? It’s more than possible.

And no, sacks aren’t the be-all-end-all of pass rushing statistics. It’s arguable that consistent quarterback pressure is more important that sacks. And certain stats like PCIs or pressure created interceptions (a stat we created and are tracking) are incredibly important to a defense, too.

But still, sacks mean the quarterback is on his ass and they’ll always be important.

The Middle:

The linebacking core is the biggest question mark for the 2021 Green Bay Packers. To many, it is seen as a glaring hole for this team.

We don’t see it that way…

Krys Barnes, entering his second season, is on the cusp of something special. We can feel it.

We have great confidence in Barnes taking a huge step this fall. We see him as a future captain of these Packers as his instincts and talent are evident. He made 80 tackles as an undrafted rookie in 2020. His ability to quickly diagnose plays, get off blocks and blow up holes is his greatest strength.

He should only get better as well, despite being clearly rough around the edges.

Our biggest prediction for the Packers this fall is that Barnes will be known not only as a clear starting caliber NFL linebacker, but as a dynamic, play-making linebacker.

If this prediction comes true, then Green Bay really will have at least one star at all four levels of the defense.

Second year Kamal Martin out of Minnesota will also have a chance to prove himself in 2021. He put together a pretty solid rookie season, given the circumstances of COVID and his knee injury.

Joining them is 28 year old free agent signing De’Vondre Campbell. His role on the team has yet to be defined, but if Barnes can bolster the middle of the defense, Campbell will be able to showcase his pass rushing and pass defending abilities. He did make 129 tackles in 2019 and 99 in 2020. So the Packers are definitely looking for him to make an impact.

Campbell could easily start alongside Barnes in the middle of the defense as a read and react tackler, too. We simply don’t know how these players will gel together.

Rounding out the linebacking core are Ty Summers and Oren Burks. Both have shown modest flashes of talent, but achieving consistency is the key to their impacts, or lack thereof, on the 2021 Packers.

The Backfield:

The Packers’ defensive backfield is the strongest facet of their defense. They’re an amazing assemblage of talent. And this is said with the understanding that this team’s edge rushers are undeniably great, too.

As per usual, Gutekunst identified a strength on the Packers’ team and added to it at cornerback. Running backs strong? Draft another. Amazing quarterback? Draft another. Strong edge rushers? Draft another!

Rookie cornerback Eric Stokes was the next in this trend to play opposite Jaire Alexander. He has elite speed and will be counted on to contribute from Week 1 of the 2021 season. As we said, he’ll likely play opposite Jaire Alexander and with his talent and speed — who knows what will happen?

If Kevin King can stay healthy (yeah, yeah, we know), then he’ll be an invaluable piece of this defense. The Packers would boast impressive depth at one of the most important positions on the field, especially with the league becoming more pass happy by the year.

What can definitely be counted on are safeties Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage continuing to bolster their reputation as one of the best safety duos in the league.

Is this the year they become known as the top duo? We wouldn’t bet against it. The only question with that position is who will step up to be the top backup? Vernon Scott or Will Redmond?

The nickel cornerback spot is still a bit in the air, but Chandon Sullivan is an easy guy to root for. However one of the most welcome surprises in 2021 would be Josh Jackson actually putting together a quality season. We’ll have to see.

The defensive backs on this team are our favorite position group to write about — is it that obvious? They play so fast and with such confidence. The first round draft pick of Stokes should only add to this phenomenon.

Which comes first?

When an NFL defense finds success the team’s pass rush and defensive backfield is often a bit of a chicken and egg situation. Does the pass rush help the defensive backs? Yes, but the defensive backs also help the pass rush. Better coverage helps sacks, better pressure helps coverage. Fortunately, the Packers’ edge rushers and defensive backfields are their best defensive player groups.

For the 2021 Packers, we honestly don’t care which group helps the other more, so long as both continue to play at a high rate. This is especially true with the younger players being counted on to step up (looking at you edge rusher Gary and safety Savage).

Great defenses have threats and consistency at all levels, perhaps Green Bay will have that this fall.

Bonafide Leadership Group

Za’Darius Smith, Jaire Alexander, Adrian Amos and Kenny Clark.

They are this team’s defensive leaders. Many NFL teams would kill for a foursome of defensive leaders like this on their side.

The word leadership on the 2021 Green Bay Packers’ defense starts and ends with these guys. These are the men that will be responsible for the Packers getting back to the big game — particularly ‘Z’ and Jaire.

Yes, there are some younger players growing toward that level, but at this moment, this is your leadership group. We are hoping Krys Barnes, Darnell Savage and Rashan Gary can start throwing their leadership weight around (even with being so young).

To contend in the modern NFL, a defense simply has to have a strong leadership core. These are the men that will hold everyone else accountable, will be counted on to bring energy and step up in the biggest moments. All gas no brake takes constant energy. Leaders bring energy when others don’t.

The winning formula?

The Packers have never won a Super Bowl without a pairing of an elite edge rusher and elite defensive back. I’d guess this is true for many Super Bowl champion squads.

Super Bowl I and II saw Willie Davis (DE) and Herb Adderley (CB) lead that charge.

Super Bowl XXXI had Reggie White (DE) and LeRoy Butler (S) dominating offenses.

Super Bowl XLV witnessed Clay Matthews (EDGE) and Charles Woodson (CB/S) at the helm of the Packers’ defense.

The Packers’ current team, in terms of truly elite players on the defensive side of the ball, is led by Za’Darius Smith (EDGE) and Jaire Alexander (CB). They are truly elite players.

If the Packers make it to Super Bowl Sunday, it will be on the backs of these two competitors, along with Amos and Clark.

We aren’t being hyperbolic either. Call us homers, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is time for these guys to take that next step.

Now throw in Preston Smith, he’s also a leader of sorts even though his production slipped last season. As previously mentioned, we wouldn’t be shocked to see Darnell Savage take a step toward leadership either. Both of them routinely bring the juice.

Let the good times roll, baby!

Proof of Concept

You only need to look back at last year’s playoffs to see the evidence for the Packers defense leading this team. No, really.

We look back at those two postseason games and Week 17 of the regular season, which all took place after left tackle David Bakhtiari got injured, as the blueprint for this team in 2021. When things got harder on offense, the defense stiffened and gave this team a real chance at a Super Bowl.

We believe those final three games of 2020, including the playoff games, are a foreshadowing of what’s to come this year. In Week 17 the Packers faced off against the Bears with the NFC’s No. 1 seed on the line.

Green Bay’s defense came through with two turnovers and held Chicago to just 16 points.

In their Divisional Round matchup against the Los Angeles Rams the Packers out-gained the Rams by 240 yards and held them to just 18 points. Again, the defense had stepped up when they were needed the most.

Then we get to the NFC Conference Championship Game… yeah, we know. But, the defense actually played extraordinarily well.

Green Bay held Tampa Bay to just 76 rushing yards and intercepted quarterback Tom Brady three times. That is a winning formula for any defense in a big game. A few fluke plays were, unfortunately, the tipping point in the game. This defense can bring this level of play consistently in 2021 if defensive coordinator Joe Barry can unlock that potential.

One of the fluke plays we mentioned was when Brady found wide receiver Scotty Miller for a 39 yard touchdown in the final seconds before halftime. Sure, the defense let up the score, but it was the ex-defensive coordinator’s fault. To not have safety help over the top in that scenario, especially with cornerback Kevin King noticeably playing through an injury, is simply inexcusable. That is, in part, why Mike Pettine doesn’t have a job in Green Bay anymore.

The truth is, Pettine was fired because this defense has far too many dominant players to not be special.

The other huge fluke play from that game, in our opinion and in the opinion of most, was Packers star running back Aaron Jones fumbling after sustaining a chest injury in the third quarter. The Buccaneers recovered the fumble and returned it inside the Packers’ 10 yard line. He rarely fumbles, but injuries happen and you cannot blame him.

We know we can’t change anything and the past is the past, but take just those two plays away and the Packers’ defense would have done enough to win this game and send the team to the Super Bowl.

And yes, the defense did enough to get to the big game.

Even with those two catastrophic plays the Packers were within striking distance at the game’s end. Again, that was without David Bahktiari and Aaron Jones (who left the game due to his injury).

The Packers’ defensive players held up their end of the bargain. You can’t see it any other way.

And the Packers made the right call in bringing in a new defensive coordinator who has the benefit of coaching this talented squad, but with fresh eyes and new scheme to bring the defense to life.

That’s all we can hope for, really. But so far the energy he has brought to the team is encouraging.

What It All Means

Just imagine if all of these elements come together like it appears they might. The youth taking another step in development, the four levels of the defense all humming, the leaders rallying their men and the defense embracing what gave them success toward the end of the 2020 season…

It is enticing to think about.

And as we’ve mentioned, the Packers have been the most talked about team this offseason — specifically their offense. The truth is the 2021 Packers are still a mystery, a beautiful mystery, perhaps. However we’re more than confident that it will be the defense that will lead this team to that promised land.

And if somehow Aaron Rodgers sits the season out (which seems incredibly unlikely), the defense will be counted on even more, to help lead the Packers to the postseason. Yes, this roster is strong enough to carve out a playoff spot even without Rodgers.

Are the Packers a contender in 2021 without Rodgers? No, probably not. But as soon as 2022 that story could change, especially if the defense continues to grow like we think. However we think he’ll be there and this offense will still be dominant, perhaps even better than 2020. But we’ve learned, time and time again, that isn’t enough.

A few questions to ponder:

Is this the year the Za’Darius Smith gets named First Team All-Pro?

Is this the year Jaire Alexander officially takes the unambiguous throne as the league’s top cornerback?

Is this the year Adrian Amos, a consummate pro, takes another step in his leadership and becomes the clear-cut backbone of the defense?

Is this the year Kenny Clark starts to be able to rush the passer with more freedom? Could he actually hit the double-digits in sacks?

These are some of the fascinating questions surrounding this defense in 2021 and its leaders.

However the most important question is:

Can this defense, and its leaders, get the Green Bay Packers to a Super Bowl in 2021?

You already know our answer (and our reasoning, assuming Rodgers is back). But no matter what happens, we know this season is going to be entertaining. This defense is ready to be special. Who else is excited?

Go Pack Go!

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We seek to bring more context to, and share interesting stores about, the history of the Green Bay Packers and the NFL as a whole. Clickbait be damned. "We" are Daniel and David Zillmer; hit the about or contact to learn more.

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