Hiring Jeff Hafley as Packers defensive coordinator puts pressure on Matt LaFleur


GREEN BAY, Wis. — Matt LaFleur better hope he got this Jeff Hafley hire right.

For as brilliant of an offensive coach as LaFleur is — he showed as much during the 2023 season — he’s not strictly the Packers’ offensive play-caller. He’s the head coach entering his sixth year at the helm in Green Bay, a CEO of sorts for a team that should be considered a perennial NFC contender for what it did during the first year of the Jordan Love era in 2023.

The Packers might be a consistently stout defense away from being among the Super Bowl favorites as soon as the 2024 season. LaFleur fired defensive coordinator Joe Barry the week following the season-ending loss to the 49ers despite four consecutive solid performances to end Green Bay’s resurgent second half. He replaced Barry after three seasons with Hafley, who spent his last five seasons in the college ranks as Ohio State’s defensive play-caller and as Boston College’s head coach after several stints as an NFL defensive backs coach.

LaFleur and Hafley spoke with reporters in Green Bay on Thursday for the first time since the change, with the head coach expressing gratitude for Barry’s time on the job while professing his faith in Hafley. For as much burden will fall on Hafley as the new defensive play-caller for a contending team, Green Bay’s defensive performance will just as squarely fall on LaFleur.

After deciding not to bring back Mike Pettine following two seasons as defensive coordinator, LaFleur hired Barry despite his bumpy track record as a defensive coordinator with Detroit and Washington. That experiment ultimately failed, which falls on not only Barry but the coach who hired him. And if the Hafley experiment fails and the defense doesn’t adequately support what looks like it’ll be one of the league’s most prolific offenses, whether that happens over the course of one, two or three seasons, that would be another strike against LaFleur’s ability to hire properly to give his team the best chance to win.

He may be one of the NFL’s brightest offensive minds, but LaFleur needs to get the other side of the ball right, too. That’s not to say he would be on the hot seat if the defense falters egregiously this season while the offense flourishes, but pressure on LaFleur’s hiring ramps up now that he’s on his second hand-picked defensive coordinator.

After saying Thursday that position coaches shoulder responsibility because they’re head coaches of their respective groups, LaFleur added, “It’s my responsibility, ultimately.” He knows that for as much blame might fall on defensive players and defensive coaches, it ultimately comes back to him (and general manager Brian Gutekunst). But who knows, maybe hiring Hafley will turn out to be a stroke of genius. Maybe Hafley will transform Green Bay’s defense into the fast, physical, attacking unit that LaFleur said Thursday he wants. That’s why he hired Hafley, after all, because he felt the side of the ball that had been too inconsistent over the past three seasons needed change.

“Certainly any time you make a change of that magnitude there’s a lot of thought and deliberation that goes into that and you guys know how I feel about Joe Barry,” LaFleur said. “Just felt really good about what Jeff Hafley’s going to bring to us in terms of his ability to lead, his ability to connect. Certainly have always had respect for him from afar as a football coach. He’s worked with my brother at two different stops. He’s worked with Kyle Shanahan at two different stops, in Cleveland and San Francisco, and I know how those guys, how much respect they have for him as a person first and a coach second. But just really excited what he’s going to bring. Certainly it will be a different scheme, but I think it’s one that will be easy to adjust to with the personnel that we have.”

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What exactly that scheme will entail remains to be seen. There were clues dropped Thursday, like LaFleur saying he wants the Packers to be more “vision-based” in the defensive backfield, implying that they’ll lean more zone than man, as he thinks that’s a prime way to generate takeaways.

“More visual on the quarterback because he’s ultimately going to take you to where the ball is going to go,” LaFleur said. “And it’s hard to do that when you’re playing with your back to the quarterback … not to say that we won’t be that. There’s certainly going to be circumstances when you want to man up and play some match coverage. I would say a big part of what we’re going to do, especially from a coverage standpoint, is going to be have vision on the quarterback.”

So for as giddy as Hafley seems about playing press man coverage, which Packer fans will eat up, don’t expect that to be Green Bay’s prominent strategy. At the same time, the Packers will try to best construct their team to play whatever defense a given situation calls for.

“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?” Hafley said. “That’s the beauty of the scheme. We got guys that can press? Let’s line up and get our hands on people. I think that’s really important. You get a guy that can play a zone third, that can read two to one? Let’s do it and go get the ball.

“I’ve been a part of a lot of different defenses and again, it goes back to, what is this team gonna be able to do best to allow us to win games?”

When you hear the words fast, physical and attacking — how LaFleur described his ideal defense for 2024 — you think man coverage. But then you hear LaFleur lean toward zone defense and wonder how those words translate to zone defense.

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The Packers ultimately will need to have a proper mix of it all.

“You’ve got to have changeups and you have to have calls that complement one another,” Hafley said when asked how to best mix man and zone in order to have vision on the ball but also be more aggressive. “Our zone coverages are built off vision and break that allows our guys to play fast, so they’re not looking at people and looking around for people. The essence of playing vision-and-break coverage is when the ball’s thrown, you have two or three guys going 100 miles an hour to the ball carrier. And I think that’s what the biggest difference is. And you have to have complements to that, because a lot of times when you want to pressure, you can’t play that style of defense. You have to be aggressive and get your hands on people. So I think there’s a place for both. I’m big on vision and break because I want to see as many people get to the ball carrier and as fast as we can over and over again.”

Firing Barry and hiring Hafley wasn’t the only significant staff change LaFleur made since season’s end. He also replaced strength and conditioning coordinator Chris Gizzi, who had served in the role for the past five seasons, with 49ers assistant strength coach Aaron Hill.

“I think Gizz is an outstanding strength coach and I don’t want that to be like, that’s all the strength department’s problem. That was not what it was,” LaFleur said. “Quite frankly, that’s not what I believe and that’s not what we found out either. It was just one of those deals where I felt like some new leadership in that position could be beneficial to us and found a guy in Aaron Hill coming from San Francisco, ironically enough, that I think they’re doing some pretty cool things out there. Obviously you guys know I’ve got a close relationship with Kyle (Shanahan) but also with the head strength coach there, Dustin Perry, who may or may not be my wife’s first cousin, so had a lot of conversations with him.”

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Sean Mannion will reunite with his former Rams offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur by joining the Packers’ staff. (Kirby Lee / USA Today)

The Packers also hired recently retired nine-year NFL quarterback Sean Mannion to be an offensive assistant primarily working with quarterbacks. Mannion was Jared Goff’s backup in Los Angeles when LaFleur was the Rams’ offensive coordinator in 2017.

“I always figured he was going to go down this route,” LaFleur said. “Matter of fact, when we played ’em earlier in the year, he told me he was going to get into coaching, so I was like, ‘All right, well let me know when you’re going to become a coach.’ He’s just a guy that I’ve always respected how he went about his process, how he prepared for games, how he helped Jared in that situation being a backup for us.”

LaFleur added that he spoke with Mannion on a Zoom call during the second half of the NFC Championship Game as Mannion was preparing to interview for a spot on the Bears staff. Mannion showed LaFleur what he was going to present and LaFleur encouraged Mannion to come to Green Bay for an interview after meeting with Chicago.

“I’m surprised that they let him out of the building,” LaFleur said. “They tried to get him, but I guess we had more to offer. But we’re lucky to have him. I really do think this guy’s going to have a bright future for us and certainly in the coaching profession.”

(Top photo: Ian Maule / Getty Images)





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