Prior to Sunday Night Football, the Packers defense had looked very much like a work in progress to start the 2021 season. After giving up 38 points to the New Orleans Saints in Week 1, the Packers struggled to do anything to get pressure on Jared Goff and the Detroit Lions in the first half of Week 2.
The pressure numbers were particularly concerning heading into Sunday’s nationally televised contest. The team had registered zero tackles for loss and a single sack, which was not credited to any individual player after Goff fumbled the ball when trying to wind up for a pass.
A lot of the blame fell on the defensive line, which had struggled to generate any push against the pass or the run. That made things significantly harder on the secondary, which was forced to stick to receivers for too long while Winston and Goff sat back waiting in clean pockets.
Fortunately for Packers fans, Kenny Clark was sick of the defensive line not producing.
Kenny Clark’s Big Game
As one of the highest-paid defensive tackles in the NFL, Clark is expected to have a big impact in the middle of the Packers defense on a weekly basis. It took him a few games to get going, but Sunday’s performance was a big reason why the Packers were able to make things so difficult for Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers offense, especially early on.
Clark’s presence was felt almost immediately on Sunday night. On San Francisco’s opening drive, he helped the Packers record their first tackle for loss of the season by blowing up an attempted toss to Trey Sermon.
Watch how quick Clark is able to explode off the snap, but also look at how he stays low and uses his arms to gain leverage and blow back the center Alex Mack.
First drive for the defense, watch Kenny Clark just eviscerate Alex Mack off the line of scrimmage. pic.twitter.com/57mDWuRwk8— Tyler Brooke (@TylerDBrooke) September 28, 2021
Although he’s not able to get the tackle, Clark’s penetration into the backfield forces Sermon to avoid him. This allows Preston Smith, who has had a fantastic season setting the edge, to clean the play up.
Just a couple of plays later on third down, Clark showcased his impressive play strength again, this time with a “long arm” on right guard Daniel Brunskill that drove him straight back into Jimmy Garoppolo.
Couple plays later, look at the arm extension from Clark on this rush.— Tyler Brooke (@TylerDBrooke) September 28, 2021
Hands above eyes, excellent leverage drives the guard into Jimmy G. Big third-down stop. pic.twitter.com/2wYnSeHE0W
Again, Clark does a great job of winning the leverage battle, then keeps his arm extended as he drives Brunskill back. It leaves Garoppolo without a clean platform to throw off, and results in a third-down stop.
Defensive coordinator Joe Barry seemed to notice a clear weakness on the 49ers offense, consistently attacking the interior of the offensive line, particularly Mack and Brunskill, by blitzing and putting Clark in more aggressive alignments.
Clark tended to line up on Brunskill’s outside shoulder on more obvious passing downs, lining up in either a three-technique or perhaps even a 4i technique, lining up at a slight angle on the right tackle’s inside shoulder.
This allowed Clark to attack and translate from speed to power with a bit more momentum. His motor was relentless, making it difficult for Brunskill to properly set his anchor to avoid the pocket collapsing.
When Kenny Clark can win with power, the Packers pass rush becomes so much more effective.— Tyler Brooke (@TylerDBrooke) September 28, 2021
(I refuse to show the terrible Stokes PI call at the end of this) pic.twitter.com/0C4MwyAARM
That motor might have helped Clark make another pivotal play in the second half. The 49ers tried to run a slow-developing screen play, but Clark was able to get into Garoppolo’s face so quickly that the San Francisco quarterback panicked and tried to throw it away, accidentally passing it backwards for a fumble that the Packers recovered.
Clark gets in Jimmy G's face to force the fumble.— Tyler Brooke (@TylerDBrooke) September 28, 2021
Feels like this screen develops too slowly to be effective, but credit to Clark for playing with more urgency. pic.twitter.com/B8pSB6r0Ie
To be fair, the screen play seemed to take far too long to develop for the 49ers. Along with a play-action fake, they used post-snap orbit motion to try and get the linebackers to flow in the opposite direction of the screen. Fortunately for the Packers, Clark didn’t feel like waiting around for the screen to play out.
As the game played out, Clark started setting up Brunskill for some additional pass-rush moves. The 49ers right guard began anticipating the power rush, so Clark started using some counters.
Love the double-move from Kenny Clark here.— Tyler Brooke (@TylerDBrooke) September 28, 2021
He was generating pressure the whole game. pic.twitter.com/Iyc66OyA8o
An initially unsuccessful pass-rush move didn’t discourage Clark. Instead he kept attacking before hitting Brunskill with a swim move that helped him get a clean shot at the quarterback. It was an incredible catch from Deebo Samuel at the end of the play, but the pressure from Clark still resulted in a hurried throw, which is the goal for any NFL defense.
It wasn’t a perfect game from Clark, however. Despite being able to consistently generate pressure and get into the backfield, his tackling technique wasn’t the cleanest on a couple of occasions and is something that will need to be cleaned up going forward.
Another beautiful move by Clark to get into the backfield, but that's a tough missed tackle.— Tyler Brooke (@TylerDBrooke) September 28, 2021
Gotta finish that play. pic.twitter.com/MV5lEHpqvT
Despite that, Clark had a substantial impact on the game. His six QB pressures were the most by any Packers player according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and his pressure on the Garoppolo fumble was a potentially game-changing play that helped the Packers get a late field goal to go up 27-21. Without it, the Packers likely would have had to score a touchdown on the final drive to win the game.
Clark wasn’t the only defensive lineman to step up, however.
Dean Lowry and Tyler Lancaster Step Up
After so much frustration in the first two weeks watching Dean Lowry and Tyler Lancaster, the two heavily-featured defensive linemen were able to make some big plays against the 49ers.
Along with a handful of quarterback pressures, the defensive linemen also had a couple of big stops on third-and-short situations that helped change possession.
Bonus shoutout to Tyler Lancaster and Dean Lowry.— Tyler Brooke (@TylerDBrooke) September 28, 2021
Both made some key stops and generated a handful of pressures on Sunday night. pic.twitter.com/wgQFo90U5u
The final box score suggests that the Packers had another tough game defensively, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Despite some terrible officiating that quantifiably gave the 49ers a real chance at winning, the Packers still held the 49ers to less than 300 total yards while picking up four sacks and two turnovers.
If the defensive line can continue to play well, especially Kenny Clark, then the Packers defense could make some huge strides in 2021.