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Packers 2019 Roster Grades: Aside from Kenny Clark, D-line must improve in all phases

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The defense’s front line struggled to hold up against the run and generate a consistent pass rush.

Green Bay Packers v New York Giants Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Each winter, Acme Packing Company breaks down the Green Bay Packers’ roster from the previous year by position to examine the team’s performance and needs in the offseason. Today we continue this series by looking at the defensive line.

Preston and Za’Darius Smith gave the Green Bay Packers’ pass rush a jolt in 2019, making good on the team’s offseason splurge last spring. The near-inseparable interview duo combined for 25.5 sacks and 60 quarterback hits, wreaking havoc behind the line of scrimmage throughout the season. While the Packers certainly added a dynamic presence to its edge defense, they did not remotely receive as heavy of a push from their defensive line.

Starters

Kenny Clark

16 games played, 16 starts
62 total tackles (31 solo), 7 tackles for loss, 6.0 sacks, 7 QB hits, 1 pass defense, 1 forced fumble

Dean Lowry

16 games played, 16 starts
47 total tackles (23 solo), 2 tackles for loss, 0 sacks, 2 QB hits, 3 pass defenses, 1 fumble recovery

The unit was not all bad in 2019. Kenny Clark continued to emerge as one of the best young interior defenders in the NFL, staying healthy enough to start in 16 games and tie a career high with six sacks. Clark also posted nine tackles for a loss while generating more than 60 pressures inside as a pass rusher. Pro Football Focus also credited him with 11 stuffs in the run game, the most on the team as Clark continued to anchor down the center of the line. Clark certainly met expectations once again this past season and is an integral piece of the Packers’ defense going forward.

But what will the rest of the defensive line look like next season?

Dean Lowry will definitely be back, but he took a step back after receiving a three-year, $20 million extension prior to the start of last season. After being an underrated part of the line in his first three seasons in Green Bay, Lowry’s production did not meet his dollar figure in 2019 as his total pressures dropped (29 to 20), along with his quarterback hits (2) and total sacks (0). Lowry was not a hindrance for the Packers, but his performance as a rusher at the five technique was disappointing, as was his stoutness against the run.

As Lowry’s production plateaued, so did the rest of the line. The unit allowed 4.7 yards per rush, a number that ranked in the bottom seven of the league and was a much higher figure than that of previous seasons in which the Packers recorded 4.3, 3.9, and 4.0 yards per rush, respectively. In fact, it was the highest average allowed since the 2011 season (4.7) and the line’s issues became most noticeable at the worst time - the NFC Championship Game.

Green Bay was porous in allowing 285 rushing yards to San Francisco after already giving up a bottom-third-of-the-league 120.1 yards per game during the regular season. It was a bad look for the defensive line and especially for Mike Pettine, who vowed to stop the pass leading up to the game and employed only three-man fronts on 78.1% of downs. That focus on the pass also did not seem to translate well for the line all year long with Lowry, Montravius Adams, Tyler Lancaster, and Kingsley Keke combining for a grand total of 1.5 sacks.

Backups

Tyler Lancaster

16 games played, 10 starts
30 total tackles (17 solo), 2 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, 2 QB hits, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery

Montravius Adams

14 games played, 2 starts
11 total tackles (4 solo), 3 pass defenses, 1 fumble recovery

Kingsley Keke

14 games played
10 total tackles (3 solo), 1 QB hits

Lancaster was a gem for Green Bay in 2018 after making the team as an undrafted free agent, but his play in 2019 was not enough to offset the loss of veteran Mike Daniels. Although Daniels’ health was a factor during his final years in Green Bay, his absence seemed to be particularly felt in his first year away. A lack of progression from Adams was felt even more so, as the second-year pro garnered only 19 defensive snaps over the final four weeks of the regular season and failed to post a single tackle for a loss. Meanwhile, Green Bay’s hopes for instant impact from its athletic fifth-rounder Keke never came to fruition.

Overall Grade: B-minus

Clark’s excellent year and large workload helped mask many deficiencies down the roster on the line. With the Smiths in the fold for the next several seasons at the edge-rushing spots, fixing the defensive line may not be the team’s biggest offseason priority. But affordable veteran help on either end to support the run and produce some sort of pass rush attack should still be a consideration with Clark holding down the fort in the middle.