It seems like a lifetime ago since the New Orleans Saints demolished the Green Bay Packers in Week 1. Since that devastating performance, their defense has skyrocketed to being one of the best in the league. They managed to keep some of the league’s deadliest, most mobile quarterbacks in check over the past month.
But the defense’s meteoric rise fell back to earth against Kirk Cousins and the Minnesota Vikings’ offense this past Sunday. Justin Jefferson had his way with the Packers’ secondary, with over 100 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter alone.
The secondary was culpable in the loss, but lost in the disappointment was that the defensive line played well. Led by Kenny Clark, 26, the D-line fortified itself and has become a key contributor to Green Bay’s success.
The Packers’ defensive line has been a source of woe for most of the last few years, especially against the run. Beyond Clark, we hadn’t seen much in the way of talent or improvement. Opponents have shredded the unit in many big moments, including the miserable 2019 NFC Championship and Dalvin Cook‘s four TD game last season.
Without any significant additions, that group seemed poised to struggle again, and history seemed to repeat itself with their performance against the Saints.
But over the past few weeks, the D-line has gone from woe to whoa. On Sunday, they held Cook to 3.9 yards per carry with most of the same personnel as last season. Clark was straight-up bullying the Vikings’ center — something he’s become known for. Clark is back to his 2019 Pro Bowl self.
His numbers may not always be flashy, but Clark is essential to the Packers’ front. When he forces double teams, it makes life easier for the other players on the line and helps the pass rush get home. He’s the lynchpin. Entering the Seattle Seahawks game, Clark had the third-most pressures for an interior defensive lineman with 39.
But he isn’t the only one showing out this season. His longest-tenured linemate and fellow 2016 NFL draftee Dean Lowry was 16th on that list with 23 pressures. Lowry has been an unstoppable force, recording three sacks this year.
Lowry has cleaned up his game after looking like a liability in Week 1 and is playing his best season as a pro, which makes Clark’s life easier. He has evolved into a stout run defender.
“I’ve always been more of a physical pass rusher,” Lowry told reporters earlier this season. “I’ve really mixed it up well (this year) with more stunts and more speed moves to keep the O-lineman guessing. Just really mixing that up and having a better combination, and then when I do go more speed-to-power, having better pad level and getting off the ball better and just having a lot of confidence right now.”
Speaking of other players making a massive turnaround, I owe Tyler Lancaster an apology after a scathing Week 1 review. Lancaster played everywhere on the defensive line on Sunday and made his presence known with two tackles for loss. He’s grown into a solid run defender and is showing more against the passing game as well.
Lancaster briefly exited Sunday’s game, and you can tell the perception of his role has changed in the last few months. His brief absence was considered a tough loss. Thankfully, he was able to return to the lineup. Per PackersWire, Lancaster was the third-highest-ranked PFF defender on the day.
The Packers seem to have found a nice developing piece in T.J. Slaton as well. Slaton’s first moment of glory came against the team with no name, as he blocked Washington kicker Chris Blewitt‘s field goal attempt. After getting a start on special teams, Slaton has earned more playing time, including 69% of defensive snaps against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Slaton has played well in spurts, including some nice run stops against Seattle. Considered by many to be a Day 3 steal, Slaton can grow into an excellent role player for Green Bay and push for a starting role in the future.
Ideally, the Packers can get more from Kingsley Keke down the stretch. He showed promise last year, but he has had his ups and downs this year. He was one of Green Bay’s lowest-graded defenders to start the year, but he has played much better as the season continues.
Although he mostly had a great game Sunday, Keke had a game-altering roughing the passer call when he had helmet contact with Cousins, erasing a Darnell Savage interception and leading to a Minnesota touchdown. Still, Keke was the second-highest-graded defender in that game and had more good than bad. It’s a shame that play will be the highlight. Keke has shown great flashes and can still develop into a nice role.
What seemed to be one of Green Bay’s most significant weaknesses is proving to be a strength as this season approaches its crescendo. Games are won in the trenches, and that will only be more apparent as we get into the colder months. Clark and his legion of big men appear more than ready to fortify this pleasantly surprising Green Bay defense.