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The Packers' defensive performance vs. the Ravens demonstrates just how much Kenny Clark is needed

BALTIMORE – In case they or anyone else was wondering, the Green Bay Packers found out Sunday who their most important defensive player is.

They’ve been fine for 10 games without Jaire Alexander, who would have been my preseason pick as their most indispensable guy on that side of that ball.

They’ve been fine the whole season without Za’Darius Smith, who underwent back surgery after the opener.

But take Clark out of the mix, as he was Sunday because he’s on the COVID-19 list, and their defense was something of a slow-rolling disaster, though they were able to pull out the big 31-30 win by finally getting a stop, on John Harbaugh’s go-for-broke two-point conversion attempt in the game’s final minute.

Of course the Packers missed Clark, their nose tackle, against the run. He’s their anchor. But they just as much missed his explosiveness in collapsing the pocket. Inside pressure bothers quarterbacks more than anything, and pushing the pocket up the middle is the most sure way to shrink the scrambling lanes for a exceptional running quarterback, which Baltimore backup Tyler Huntley surely is.

BOX SCORE: Packers 31, Ravens 30

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Don’t think the Packers don’t know it. The giveaway was coach Matt LaFleur’s answer when asked what happened to the Packers’ rush lanes against Huntley (13 carries for 73 yards), after coordinator Joe Barry’s defense had done so well hemming in outstanding running quarterbacks Kyler Murray, Russell Wilson and Justin Fields earlier this season.

“That wasn't good enough,” LaFleur said of his team’s rush-lane discipline. “I do think certainly anytime you lose a guy like Kenny, I think that has an impact.”

Yes it does. Though most of Huntley’s runs came around the edge, especially in his two fourth-quarter touchdown drives that brought the Ravens back from 14 points down, Clark’s absence was a factor and affected everybody else on their defensive line. If there’s less room to step up to begin with, the quarterback can’t lure outside rushers to abandon their lanes by starting forward and then backtracking to the side door. Huntley did that several times Sunday.

For all the big injuries the Packers have sustained this season, it’s now clear they need Clark on the field more than anyone else on their defense to fulfill their biggest dreams. Where Rasul Douglas and first-round pick Eric Stokes have helped mitigate Alexander’s absence, and Rashan Garry’s blossoming has covered up the loss of Za’Darius Smith, there is no such making up for Clark on the Packers’ roster.

Sunday was the proof. Yes, Huntley (99.5 rating, no interceptions) is a good backup. But he’s still not Lamar Jackson, who didn’t play because of a sprained ankle. Besides which the Ravens were missing at least three preferred starters on the offensive line (left tackle Ronnie Stanley, left guard Ben Powers, and the in-game loss of right tackle Tyre Phillips), along with one of their best receivers (Sammy Watkins, COVID-19) and have played all season without their No. 1 running back (J.K. Dobbins, ACL tear). 

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The Ravens nevertheless moved the ball up and down the field Sunday (354 yards in total offense), and perhaps lost this game on the opening drive when they failed to score on fourth-and-goal from the 3 after controlling the ball for 7½ minutes. The Packers sacked Huntley only once and forced him into one grounding penalty, but forced no turnovers and let him escape the pocket time and again for backbreaking first-down conversions and touchdown scrambles of 3 and 8 yards. It might have helped to at least have 11 guys on the field for that final score, instead of the 10 who lined up for that play.

Still, the Packers weathered the storm and now have to hope Clark can return this week for a Christmas Day game against Cleveland and not have lost too much to his bout with COVID-19.

Skin-of-your-teeth wins are still wins, and the Packers walked out of M&T Bank Stadium with the NFC North title clinched and atop the NFC playoff seedings at 11-3 with a one-game lead over Dallas, Tampa Bay and Arizona (10-4 each). The Packers currently would lose a tie-breaker with the Cowboys (conference record) but win it with the Bucs (conference record) and Cardinals (head-to-head). Bottom line is, if the Packers win out against Cleveland at home, Minnesota at home, and at Detroit, they’ll host the NFC playoffs in the deep freeze of January for as long as they’re alive and get the lone first-round bye to boot.

“Playing in Lambeau is to our advantage in a lot of ways,” inside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell said. “The reality is, no one wants to play football in the cold.”

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The reality also is that a Packers defense that was ascending for most of the season has backslid recently. In their last three games they’ve given up 34 points to the Minnesota Vikings, 28 to the Los Angeles Rams and now 30 to the Ravens even though they were missing their former league MVP quarterback.

Even good defenses can have bad stretches in this league, where offense still rules. But it’s looking more and more like the Packers could really use Alexander (shoulder) and Za’Darius Smith (back) to return from their injuries before the regular season ends, so they get at least a little game time to shake off the rust from their long absences.

If it’s not a given either returns – Alexander has practiced part time the last two weeks, Smith still hasn’t practiced at all – it’s an even bigger question just how effective they’ll be considering they’re coming off serious injuries and haven’t played in months.

It also is clear that Clark is essential for this team to reach its highest aspirations. He makes Campbell, Dean Lowry, Preston Smith and Gary better players. Sunday was proof of that.

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