Why Joe Barry's D has helped spark Packers' turnaround

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Joe Barry haters out there -- and if you follow the Green Bay Packers, you know there are plenty -- aren't going to like this.

The defensive coordinator whom so many wanted gone after last season, and even early in this one, is now the defensive coordinator of a top-10 unit in the NFL. By holding quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs under 20 points in Sunday's 27-19 upset at Lambeau Field, the Packers moved into ninth in the NFL in points allowed at 20.3 per game.

The doubters will point to a run defense that remains near the bottom of the league (30th in rushing yards allowed per game). They won't be able to erase the memory of three 200-yard rushing games against the Packers this season (Steelers, Lions). And they will remind everyone that their overall ranking in terms of yards allowed is still in the bottom half of the NFL at No. 18.

Still, there were signs from the beginning that the Packers' defense could keep them in games, even if it couldn't win them outright. Coach Matt LaFleur probably lost track of how often in the first half of the season he said the defense did enough to win.

A month ago, all that meant nothing because the Packers couldn't marry it with an effective offense. But now that LaFleur and quarterback Jordan Love have found a rhythm, people have begun to notice a defense that in consecutive weeks has turned away Justin Herbert, Jared Goff and Mahomes.

"They're starting to look like some of the good defenses they've had in the past," a scout for a team on the Packers schedule said. "If they can get ahead and play with the lead, they can get after the quarterback. But they've got to be playing from ahead."

Sunday's win over the Chiefs fit that formula. For the second straight week, the Packers took the opening kickoff and scored on their opening drive. They never trailed against the Lions or the Chiefs and are now back in the playoff picture at 6-6 heading into Monday night's game at the New York Giants. ESPN's Football Power Index gives Green Bay a 67% chance of making the postseason.

What's more, Barry & Co. have managed to hold up despite a ravaged secondary. All-Pro cornerback Jaire Alexander has missed seven games because of back and shoulder injuries -- the latter of which has allowed him to practice on a limited basis of late, but he hasn't able to play. Pro Bowl cornerback Rasul Douglas was traded to the Bills in October. Both opening-day starting safeties, Darnell Savage and Rudy Ford, have missed games.

When nickel cornerback Keisean Nixon came up with his fourth-quarter interception to help seal the game against the Chiefs, it served as a reminder of exactly what his position group has looked like. Instead of playing next to Alexander and Douglas, Nixon was paired with rookie Carrington Valentine and journeyman Corey Ballentine, who originally came to Green Bay last season on the practice squad.

"I think I was the last man standing from the starters out of training camp," Nixon said.

"Same thing I said last week in the media: C.V. and C.B. been playing hella ball. C.B. earned every opportunity since he been here, and he's been showing it. We came in together in 2019, and I watched him grow, and I don't know what it is about this [Packers] G [logo], but it turns players into great players, for real."

While the Packers' defense still showed its warts in allowing Chiefs running back Isiah Pacheco to rush for 110 yards on 18 carries (6.1-yard average), it succeeded at limiting the big plays. And if Barry's unit hadn't proved it could beat an elite quarterback before Sunday, then what it did to Mahomes -- especially in the red zone -- should help the case.

All three of the Packers' sacks came with the Chiefs on the precipice of the end zone. Rookie Lukas Van Ness dropped Mahomes for an 8-yard loss on first-and-goal at the 5. Two plays later, Rashan Gary and Kenny Clark combined to get Mahomes on third-and-goal from the 9 to force a field goal. Same thing on the next drive, when Preston Smith sacked him on third-and-9 from the 11.

Perhaps the Packers got lucky that Valentine seemingly got away with a pass interference on a deep ball to Marquez Valdes-Scantling on the final drive. Perhaps Goff gifted them three fumbles on Thanksgiving. And perhaps all the passes that the Chargers dropped let the Packers off the hook.

But it's clear the Packers are making things happen, too. On Nixon's interception, he said he knew what was coming because of some film the coaching staff put together.

"We were watching mannerism tape earlier in the week, and [Mahomes] tapped his knee, and they put two off the ball, and I'm like, 'Oh, I've seen this before,'" Nixon said. "I knew he was going to run it, and he ran it."

None of this means the Packers' defense has arrived, but when asked about the job Barry has done with this defense, LaFleur was optimistic.

"I think it seems to be getting better and better each and every week," LaFleur said.