Packers by position: Kenny Clark, then what? Packers need up-front improvement on defensive line


GREEN BAY — Kenny Clark isn’t an NFL star-in-the-making. He already is a star.

The question is whether those around him on the Green Bay Packers’ defensive line will elevate their games the way the 2016 first-round pick has over the last few years. From Tyler Lancaster and Dean Lowry to Montravius Adams and Kingsley Keke, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine needs more from all of them.

“I don’t think it was any secret,” Pettine said. “I mean, we talked about it, that it felt like Kenny played too many plays.”


The numbers surely support that feeling. Even though Pettine rarely goes with a three-down linemen look because he plays his sub packages so much, Clark finished last year having played 869 defensive snaps (83.7%). Lowry was next, having played 637 (61.3%) while Lancaster played 381 (36.6%).

After that, Adams was a colossal disappointment after earning plaudits from Pettine early in training camp (187 snaps, or 17.9%) and Keke, a rookie fifth-round pick, played even less (94 snaps, or 9.0%).

So as training camp approaches, Pettine is hoping not only that Lowry and Lancaster can have a greater impact, but that Keke can take some of the flashes he showed late in the year and parlay them into more contributions.

“Developing some depth in that room (is crucial),” Pettine said. “So that means Keke is going to have to step up, Montravius is going to have step up. Tyler has certainly put it on tape where in the run game, he’s certainly capable. Dean as well. I just think the key thing in that room is beyond those three. We relied on those three too much last year.

“Hey, this is a great opportunity. You always want to have fresh legs there and have a rotation to roll guys through. We’re looking forward to getting those guys out there — especially the new guys — and seeing what they can do.”

The Packers certainly know what Clark can do. He went to his first Pro Bowl last season, as an injury replacement for the Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald, after Clark registered six sacks (tying a career high), forced one fumble, had 11 tackles for a loss, registered 28 quarterback hits (third-most on the team) and was credited with 32 QB pressures (tied for third-most on the team). General manager Brian Gutekunst said before last season that signing Clark to a long-term extension was a priority for the team, but the deal didn’t get done during the year and now with the COVID-19 pandemic creating so much uncertainty league-wide, it’s unclear when Clark might get a new deal.

“It’s just really tough right now. The thing is, nobody knows. Nobody knows,” said Clark, who spent his offseason at home in southern California. “Every day is something different. Whether it’s the coaches, whether it’s the people upstairs, whether it’s the NFLPA — nobody knows what’s going to happen day to day. So that’s just the toughest part right now. I don’t know. They have the day for us to report and all that, but you never know. That could change based on everything that’s going on. Everything’s up in the air. You just never know.”

The Packers defensive line should be a motivated lot given the way their season ended, as the San Francisco 49ers demolished the Green Bay defense on the ground, running for 285 yards — led by Raheem Mostert’s 220 yards and four touchdowns — in an NFC Championship Game victory on Jan. 19. Earlier this offseason, Pettine said the performance couldn’t be a “dark cloud” that hangs over the unit this year but acknowledged the run defense must be better.

Even with some late-in-the-year improvement that was bolstered by matchups with some less-than-stellar running games, the Packers still finished 2019 tied for 23rd at 120.1 rushing yards allowed per game and tied for 24th at 4.7 yards allowed per carry.

“Certainly I expect us to get better in that area,” Gutekunst said. “I do like some of the young guys we have. Tyler Lancaster will be entering his third year; he does a good job backing up Kenny at nose. Montravius is going into his fourth year, so this is big year for him and we expect a lot of out him. And Keke being his second year we’re looking for that second-year growth out of him.

“I like the group. We have to get better in that area. It was a little bit of an Achilles heel at times last year, but I like the group and if we stay healthy I think we’ll be able to correct it.”

Here’s a closer look at the defensive line as the Packers prepare for training camp, which is scheduled to begin with veteran players reporting on Tuesday:

Depth chart

95 Tyler Lancaster: 6-foot-3, 313 pounds, age 25, third year from Northwestern.

97 Kenny Clark: 6-3, 314, 24, fifth year from UCLA.

94 Dean Lowry: 6-6, 296, 26, fifth year from Northwestern.

96 Kingsley Keke: 6-3, 288, 23, second year from Texas A&M.

90 Montravius Adams: 6-4, 304, 24, fourth year from Auburn.

93 Treyvon Hester: 6-2, 304, 27, fourth year from Toledo.

99 Willington Previlon: 6-5, 287, 23, rookie from Rutgers.

Burning question

Can this group stop the run?

Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine understands how bad his group looked in the last game of the season, and he knows “you’re always remembered by your last performance.” And as forgettable a showing as it was for the defense in that NFC Championship Game loss at San Francisco, it’s clear that the run defense is a major focus — as it should be. At the same time, without any preseason action and with in-pads practices expected to be limited during training camp, it’s worth wondering if the circumstances allow for a major improvement.

“It’s a huge point of emphasis for us. It’s something we’ve devoted a lot of time to studying, looking, compare what we’re doing and what we’re coaching to other teams,” Pettine said.

“We don’t just blindly think, ‘Hey, I’m not going to look at anything else. We have all the answers.’ We look at, was this a schematic thing? Is there something scheme-wise that’s flawed that they took advantage of? Was this a technique thing? Did we give up a big play because we executed the wrong technique? Was it bad footwork or something along those lines? Or was it a personnel thing? Was it simply their X was better than our O? And each of those answers have corresponding responses to it.”

On the rise

Kingsley Keke

It’s abundantly clear that Keke made an impression on Pettine late in the season, even though he played just 94 regular-season snaps. Think of him as the defense’s answer to tight end Jace Sternberger, one of Keke’s draft classmates and former college teammate who flashed late in the season and now is in line for an expanded role in Year 2.

“Keke, we saw the talent coming out of Texas A&M, but he was just very raw,” Pettine said. “Had a pretty good knack as a pass rusher, had some natural ability there, just as far as his run technique, pad level, playing with his hands and having a good understanding of all the information we gather pre-snap. He was a guy that as the year went on, he got his opportunities in there, he was productive for us. That’s somebody that we’re looking forward to having a much more increased role.”