The Green Bay Packers‘ defense had a rough performance against the Minnesota Vikings in the season opener last Sunday. Joe Barry’s unit gave up 17 points in the first half. However, they adjusted the zone coverage at halftime, and the Vikings scored only six more points.
There were a lot of blunders, especially the Packers’ unwillingness to adapt. However, some aspects of the defense showed promise — and one of them was rookie linebacker Quay Walker, drafted with the 22nd-overall pick.
Even with some coverage mistakes, Berry explored Walker’s versatility, and Walker showed why the Packers drafted him so high. He can play multiple spots, giving the coaches a lot of flexibility to run different concepts with the same personnel on the field. Occasionally, Barry’s plan was strange. On one play, he took Walker off the field when the Vikings were in 21 personnel, and cornerback Rasul Douglas played as a de facto linebacker in the nickel package.
Traditional linebacker (3/4 base)
Walker left the game because of a shoulder injury in the second half. Before that, his primary role was as a traditional off-ball linebacker playing alongside De’Vondre Campbell. For the most part, that usage allowed the Packers to take Krys Barnes off the field.
At the same time, there were no three-safety looks, which happened in one every four plays last season. Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage played 100% of the defensive snaps, but no other safety was on the field outside of special teams plays. That highlights the defensive approach for the season, something clear when the Packers drafted Walker and decided to let Henry Black move on in free agency.
Walker is still adapting to the pro game, so it was common to see him leaning into Campbell to tell him where to align and move right before the snap. Nonetheless, Walker’s speed was clear, and his ability to approach ball carriers and finish the play was impressive, especially after the first couple of scripted drives. Barry went more traditional, and Walker was basically playing in the middle of the field full-time.
Setting the edge (4/3 base, 6/1 look)
One of the reasons why the Packers haven’t invested much in edge depth is Walker’s perceived ability to rush the passer from the edge. In one play, Barry used three off-ball linebackers on the field together, but Barnes was the only one truly playing at his original spot. Barry used Walker and Barnes to set the edge on a 6/1 look (as you can see above), commonly used against outside-zone-blocking offenses. It was a classic 4/3 base personnel, exotic for what is expected from Barry’s coaching tree.
“I loved how he was flying around,” head coach Matt LaFleur said about Walker after the game. “I thought he was physical, and he’s got a bright future. He’s just got to keep continuing to learn, and there’s no better learning tool than getting those game reps.”
Alone over the middle
The Packers took Walker after signing De’Vondre Campbell to a long-term extension. Therefore, it was only natural to wonder how they complement each other and how the pairing gives them flexibility.
That was the case against Minnesota. Walker has the range and physical profile to be the single off-ball linebacker in the middle of the field, allowing Campbell to play in the slot. Last season, Campbell was the linebacker with the highest-usage in the slot. However, that forced the Packers to use Barnes as the lone linebacker in the middle, which had questionable results.
Now, Campbell can guard tight ends or big slot receivers when the Packers use base personnel, and Walker is capable of playing alone because of his sideline-to-sideline quickness and overall speed.
Playing against the Vikings, Joe Barry showed one snap of a very well-known strategy for Minnesota fans — but one that is no longer a staple of their defense. The double-A gap look. Walker and Campbell aligned between the center and the guards, an extremely efficient look to confuse the quarterback and the offensive line because it’s hard to know who is going to pressure. Both Packers linebackers dropped into coverage for this one play, but that same alignment can generate different opportunities throughout the season.
Covering the slot
Ideally, the Packers don’t want to see linebackers covering premier wide receivers. Many mismatches happened on Sunday, including Jefferson running a route against edge defender Preston Smith. However, it’s essential to be able to move everyone around, which some defensive minds call “positionless football.”
Walker also covered the slot and was responsible for the flat zone. That was one of the plays where the Vikings created conflict in the Packers’ coverage, and Jefferson was able to make the catch. If the unit can clean up some of those conflicts, Walker has the physical profile to execute this role against bigger offensive weapons.
LaFleur said Walker has avoided a serious shoulder injury. His presence against the Chicago Bears on Sunday isn’t confirmed yet, but there is a good chance for him to play. If he does, that’s another opportunity for the rookie to learn and incorporate what he saw on the field against the Vikings to elevate his game against a schematically similar offense.