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Kenny Clark is the heir to Mike Daniels’ “perennially underrated” mantle

He’ll never put up huge numbers, but Green Bay’s defense owes an enormous amount to its young nose tackle.

Wild Card Round - New York Giants v Green Bay Packers
Kenny Clark won’t get the recognition he deserves, but he’s been outstanding for the Packers this season.
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The idea seemed simple enough: run a toss play against a defense that has struggled to set the edge at times. The Chicago Bears have an athletic, versatile interior offensive line and a powerful running back with good vision and burst.

But No. 53 in white pushed the left tackle five yards into the backfield. Just to his left big No. 97 had bullied his man behind the line of scrimmage as well. Any hope for a cutback was gone.

Kenny Clark didn’t make the tackle in the backfield on Jordan Howard, but he caused it.

The Packers allowed 55 rushing yards on 17 carries and although the final stat line from their dominating day against the run shows 10 TFLs, Clark’s name shows just one. The 22-year-old posted just two tackles total.

But Green Bay’s run defense, a top-10 unit according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric that adjusts for opponent, wouldn’t exist if not for the second year former wrestler out of UCLA.

Take the play above. Here’s a still from when Howard should be looking to either turn the corner or cut back.

That looks like a Madden glitch. What the hell is Howard supposed to do?

Here’s video of the play from the end zone angle courtesy of X&O’s guru Ben Fennell.

(Ben’s one of the best around at breaking down film, and his timeline often becomes a Kenny Clark fan account after Packers games. Clark does so much of the dirty work.)

If Nick Perry doesn’t hold this edge, Howard can turn the corner and Clark’s penetration goes for naught. In fact, this happened a handful of times against the Bears where Clark got into the backfield, but the play was designed away from him so it didn’t matter.

On one play, it looked like Clark was going to take the handoff right from Mitch Trubisky.

Clark’s strength and athleticism creating penetration not only disrupts for him, it makes plays for others.

Head coach Mike McCarthy went out of his way to praise Clark and Mike Daniels for the standout play of Blake Martinez and the reason is simple: when the interior defenders eat up blocks, the linebackers have a chance to make plays.

If a lineman is busy blocking Clark, he can’t get to the second level on Martinez or Jake Ryan. This proves particularly valuable for a defense playing so much sub-package, with a safety playing linebacker in nickel.

And unlike most big bodies in the middle, Clark rarely comes off the field. He’s playing an incredible 74% of snaps according to Football Outsiders. That’s in the top-25 for defensive lineman, among the most among interior lineman, and top-5 among nose tackles.

His 18 run stops (per Pro Football Focus), are top-10 among interior defenders.

Much like Daniels, the sack numbers will never be gaudy. Clark isn’t the pass rusher Daniels is — not yet anyway — but he’s already blowing up game plans.

It may be a hard sell for many fans who will just point to “zero sacks” and wonder about how well he’s playing, but Clark isn’t asked to pin his ears back and go after the quarterback.

But Mike Daniels ascended as a star player, or at the very least a player most NFL fans now understands is very good, without putting up eye-popping stats.

A player’s effectiveness should be based on the completion of his responsibilities. Does he do his job? Clark’s job is to eat up two blocks, free linebackers to make plays, push the pocket on passing plays, and occasionally make tackles in the backfield.

And that’s exactly what he’s done this season.

He’s also just 22. In fact, he’s only been 22 for a month (his birthday was October 4th). This is one of the youngest impact interior defenders in the game, which means Clark can raise his level of play even further as he gets stronger, smarter and more experienced.

For now, he’s doing everything he can to dominate his matchup and make line easier for the players around him.

If a guy like Montravius Adams takes a cue from Clark — and he did some encouraging things Sunday against the Bears in his first extended action — the Packers could really put together a dominating front.

The most fundamental adage about the 3-4 defense, something to which Ted Thompson has long ascribed, is without a nose tackle, you don’t have a 3-4.

Green Bay has a nose tackle and they have an excellent run defense, thanks in large part to their young, under-appreciated defensive centerpiece.