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Packers grades: Another difference maker needed on defensive line


Ryan Wood   | Packers News

Sixth in a 2020 Packers position-analysis series with grades and biggest needs.

GREEN BAY - A year ago, the Green Bay Packers' defensive line entered the offseason with its toughness challenged. 

The Packers were run over in the 2019 NFC championship game loss at San Francisco. More than 40 carries, 285 yards. They were embarrassed. The line, especially, needed to get better. 

If rebuilding the defensive line was a primary objective for general manager Brian Gutekunst entering the 2020 season, he’ll exit knowing there is much more work to do. 

Yes, the Packers' run defense was improved this past season. And, yes, that is a low bar. In 2019, the Packers tied for 23rd in the NFL allowing 120.1 rushing yards per game. They were tied for 13th in the league allowing 112.8 rushing yards per game in 2020. 

But the defensive line is still too much Kenny Clark, not enough everyone else. The top-heavy depth chart needs to fill out. While there were signs of a developing pass rush, there weren’t nearly enough when Clark’s first half of the season was derailed because of injury.  

And if this year’s NFC championship game loss against a Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive front that might be the best in the NFL showed anything, it’s that the Packers still have a long way to go in the trenches. 

The good 

Late in the 2019 season, there was reason to believe the Packers' run defense was turning a corner. In Week 16, the Packers held Minnesota to 57 yards on 16 carries. It was a potential building-block moment, for one exception: Dalvin Cook did not play. The Packers run defense’s late-season improvement in 2020 was no fluke. The unit held Tennessee’s Derrick Henry to 98 yards on 23 carries. A week later, Chicago's David Montgomery had 69 yards on 22 carries. And while Tampa Bay’s Leonard Fournette would go on to gain 135 yards in Super Bowl LV, 89 on the ground, the Packers held him to 74 yards (55 rushing) in the NFC championship game. Ronald Jones, who had rushing 113 yards against the Packers in October,  had just 16 on 10 carries in the title game. Run defense was not what kept the Packers from making a Super Bowl trip, and the defensive line was part of that improvement. It needs to continue in 2021. 

The bad 

When the first half of Kenny Clark’s season was derailed because of a torn groin, it affected everyone else on the Packers defensive front. It’s no coincidence Preston Smith had one sack until Week 10, around the time Clark started finding his rhythm. Clark’s first sack of the season didn’t come until a week later at Indianapolis. Starting Week 11, the Packers' pass rush went on a tear, with four straight games of at least three sacks and double-digit sacks in five of their final six. The Packers also had four sacks in their divisional-round win against the Los Angeles Rams, and Clark was the lone Packers defender to sack Tom Brady in the NFC title game. No other Packers defensive lineman commands a modicum of the focus from opposing offensive lines as Clark. His absence, and the time it took him to catch up in the weeks after his return, was a big missing piece. 

Biggest need 

The Packers can’t enter another season with just one difference maker on their defensive line. Look around at the NFL’s top defenses. Washington has Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen, a pair of first-round picks. The Pittsburgh Steelers had T.J. Watt, but also Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward. The New Orleans Saints had four defensive linemen with five sacks. Then there are the Bucs, a team that won the Super Bowl on the strength of the NFL’s deepest defensive line. Yes, the Bucs have top-shelf edge rushers, but their defensive line was loaded with Ndamukong Suh, William Gholston and Vita Vea. For the Packers, it’s Clark, Dean Lowry and Kingsley Keke. The Packers saw what happens when a defensive line is built around a superstar and little depth, having no issue beating the Rams with an injured Aaron Donald. Their defensive line is built much more like the Rams' than the Bucs'. Take Clark off their defensive line, and it’s a problem. Perhaps they can fix that by signing J.J. Watt. Perhaps reinforcements will come in the draft. Either way, the Packers need more depth. 

Grades 

Kenny Clark: Signed four-year, $70 million extension in camp making him highest-paid nose tackle in NFL history, but early season derailed because of torn groin before halftime Week 1 at Minnesota. Missed next three games. Returned for Week 6 at Tampa Bay, but struggled. First sack of season didn’t come until Week 11 at Indianapolis. Slowly regained strength in his legs, and by year’s end was dominant force Packers expected on interior line. Finished regular season with two sacks, but added 2.5 sacks in playoffs. Outplayed injured Aaron Donald with 1.5 sacks in divisional-round win against Rams. Eight tackles and one sack in NFC championship game against Bucs. Difference maker in both games. Ended season playing 701 snaps (61.2%) in 15 games counting playoffs. Grade: B-plus

Dean Lowry: Solid if unspectacular defensive end with ability to move inside for snaps in subpackage. Played 697 (60.8%) snaps in all 18 games, counting playoffs. Added 130 snaps on special teams. Brought some pass-rush productivity after being shut out with zero sacks in 2019. Ended drought of 23 games without a sack that extended to 2018 season with takedown of Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins in November (unblocked). Coverage sack Week 13 against Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts. Beat Detroit right guard Oday Aboushi with quick hands on a hump move to sack Matthew Stafford in Week 14. Two defended passes, giving him 11 in his five-year career. Minimal production in run defense. Finished season with 36 tackles, fewest since 2017. Grade: C-minus

Kingsley Keke: Second-year lineman flashed glimpses of interior pass rush that enticed Packers to select him in fifth round of 2019 draft, though those moments were few. Finished with four sacks, leading the line. Two sacks apiece against New Orleans and Philadelphia, but shut out rest of the season. Recovered fumble he forced on sack-strip of Drew Brees in Week 3. Beat Philadelphia’s Jason Peters with inside speed rush to sack Carson Wentz in Week 13. Good athleticism with high motor but will need to refine pass-rush arsenal to reach full potential. Played 414 snaps (36.1%) in 15 regular-season games, a big uptick from his 94 snaps as a rookie. Inactive for both playoff games because of concussion. Grade: C-minus 

Tyler Lancaster: Rotational lineman who offers nothing as a pass rusher but adequate defending the run. No sacks. No quarterback hits. One defended pass. Played 413 snaps (36%) in 17 games counting playoffs, almost identical to his 381 snaps in 2019. Missed game in Houston with shoulder injury. Grade: D-plus

Montravius Adams: Played eight games in his fourth season before season ended with trip to injured reserve because of a toe injury that bothered him most of the season. Played 130 snaps (12.6%) with minimal production. No sacks for second straight year. No quarterback hits. Eleven tackles. Two tackles for loss. A former third-round pick, athletic ability has frustratingly never transferred to the field. Becomes free agent this spring. Grade: F 

Damon Harrison: Ninth-year veteran was claimed for season’s stretch run before Week 17 finale at Chicago. Played 12 snaps at Bears, three snaps in divisional round against Rams and 17 snaps in NFC championship game against Bucs. Recorded one tackle against Bucs. Grade: Incomplete

Billy Winn: Inspirational story, signed with Packers practice squad in September after three seasons because of injuries. Played 41 snaps (3.9%) in six games, adding 37 snaps on special teams. Showed knack for being around the football, including two defended passes. Season ended with triceps injury that sent him to injured reserve in December. Grade: Incomplete 

Brian Price: Signed to Packers' practice squad in December, returning for second stint after spending first two NFL seasons there in 2016-17. Elevated from practice squad for two regular-season games, playing 12 snaps. Also active in both playoff games for depth, totaling five snaps. Grade: Incomplete 

Anthony Rush: Claimed off waivers from Bears in late November after Damon Harrison, in whom they were interested, initially signed with Seattle. Second-year player started season on Seattle practice squad, released in October when Seahawks signed Harrison. Cut for Harrison a second time when Packers claimed him Week 17. Appeared in one game, playing one snap against Carolina. Grade: Incomplete

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