A Key at Defensive Line: Clark and Who Else?

Bill Huber

GREEN BAY, Wis. – While the Green Bay Packers went from six wins in 2018 to 13 in 2019, their run defense fell off a cliff. In 2018, Green Bay ranked 13th with 4.30 yards per carry. In 2019, that tumbled to a 24th-ranked 4.67 yards per carry.

Improvement will start on the defensive line, and that improvement might have to come from within. General manager Brian Gutekunst didn’t tap into a weak draft class, nor did he sign a veteran in free agency to bolster a unit anchored by Pro Bowler Kenny Clark. His only additions were Trayvon Hester, a street free agent, Gerald Willis, a waiver claim, and Willington Previlon, an undrafted rookie.

“Certainly, I expect us to get better in that area,” Gutekunst said of his defensive line at the end of the draft. “I do like some of the young guys we have. Tyler Lancaster will be entering his third year; he does a good job kind of backing up Kenny at nose. Montravius (Adams) is going into his fourth year, so this is big year for him and we expect a lot of out him. And (Kingsley) 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.”

The starting point, of course, will be Clark, who has developed into one of the elite three-down interior defensive linemen in the league. Among the 82 who rushed the passer at least 200 times, Clark finished sixth in ProFootballFocus.com’s pass-rushing productivity, a metric that measures sacks, hits and hurries per pass-rushing snap. Among the 63 who played at least 200 run-defending snaps, he finished seventh in PFF’s run-stop percentage, a metric that essentially measures impact tackles. Clark was the only lineman in the league to finish in the top 16 in both stats; Clark, meanwhile, was in the top seven.

To fix a leaky run defense, the Packers must get better play from everyone else, including Dean Lowry. Lowry, who signed a contract extension through the 2022 season. He hardly was dominant, though he wasn’t bad, either. Of 105 interior linemen to play at least 130 run-defending snaps, Lowry finished 21st in PFF’s run-stop percentage. According to STATS, Lowry provided eight run stuffs; a stuff is a tackle vs. the run at or behind the line of scrimmage. That was up from seven in 2018.

The rest of the depth chart is filled with wishes, hopes and crossed fingers.

The Packers used a third-round pick in 2017 on Montravius Adams, who has been a colossal disappointment. He played only 187 snaps last season, including just 31 in the final six games and one in each of the final two games. He had just one stuff. Adams was one of the most athletic prospects in the 2017 class but has three starts in three seasons and faces a make-or-break training camp.

Tyler Lancaster has done his best to pick up the slack. An undrafted free agent in 2018, Lancaster started five times as a rookie and 10 times last year. He was a revelation as a rookie. Only indomitable run-stopper Damon Harrison had a better run-stop percentage than Lancaster, according to PFF. He wasn’t awful last year, finishing 36th of 105 interior defenders in that metric. However, there was no Year 2 jump, as he went from 18 run stops in 131 run-defending snaps in 2018 to 17 in 212 snaps in 2019. The defense allowed 3.08 yards per running play with Lancaster on the field in 2018 but 4.23 in 2019, according to league data.

A fifth-round pick last year, Keke played sparingly in 14 games and recorded 11 tackles. He’s got impressive athleticism, and the team seems to be counting on him to take a big step forward in 2020. At this point in their careers, Lowry, Adams and Lancaster are known commodities. Keke is where there’s potential.

“We saw the talent coming out of Texas A&M, but he was just very raw,” defensive coordinator Mike 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 – all the little details that takes guys sometimes a while to pick up, not only to learn but then also to be able to apply it. 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.”

A KEY AT EACH POSITION

Quarterback: Too many incompletions

Receiver: Too many drops

Running back: How will the carries be divided?

Tight end: For starters, it’s Sternberger

Offensive line: Wagner vs. stud pass rushers

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