I don’t think it’s a trip too far out on a limb to say a lot of us were wrong about the Packers this year, either in aggregate or on specific things. But I’d like to call attention to one specific thing I was wrong about: Kenny Clark’s playing time.
Over the summer, I suggested that Clark was likely to spend even more time at defensive end this year. I based that thinking on the fact that the Packers had added Jarran Reed and Devonte Wyatt over the offseason, with both poised to fill a lot of snaps at the defensive tackle spots. And with TJ Slaton ascending, it seemed like the Packers were likely to put Clark outside and let him build on his productive 2021 season. After all, playing more snaps at end had helped Clark to a career-high 13 quarterback hits to go with four sacks, earning his second Pro Bowl berth in the process.
But instead, Clark has played fewer snaps at end, bumping inside to man the Packers’ nose tackle spot. He’s not playing quite as much on the nose as he did earlier in his career, but it’s a significant departure from 2021 and has resulted in less time spent at end. After spending just 16% of his snaps at nose tackle in 2021, Clark has played more than 21% of his snaps there this season, and his snaps at end have dropped from more than 30% to 24%.
I hypothesized back in August that we'd probably see more of Kenny Clark at end in 2022. He had been playing there more and was very effective with more snaps at end in 2021.— Jon Meerdink (@JonMeerdink) November 30, 2022
But instead, he's playing more NT than he did in 2021. Not as much as he did 2016-19, but still more. pic.twitter.com/7t4vXNNiUL
The bulk of this shift has happened over the past month and a half. He’s still gotten time at end, but his opportunities there have diminished.
It seems like the Packers are moving Clark around in hopes of taking advantage of matchups on the opposing offensive line, which is a good goal, but it’s come at a price. Not only does it take Clark away from a position where he does well, it’s resulted in a corresponding increase in Dean Lowry’s snaps. When Clark does play end, it’s usually on the left side — but that’s also where Lowry tends to line up. And as a result, you can see when the Packers are choosing Lowry at end over Clark. The playing time difference has been especially pronounced over the past month or so, which also corresponds with a poor stretch of play for Clark.
Who's taking the end snaps? Generally, it seems Clark loses snaps at end to Dean Lowry. Lowry has outsnapped Clark at end in all but one game this season, but especially so over the last month. pic.twitter.com/WklLKqZvuo— Jon Meerdink (@JonMeerdink) November 30, 2022
Two games from that chart stand out: Week 3 and Week 11. Week 3 is the only game this year where Clark played more end snaps than Lowry. It was also Clark’s best game of the season according to Pro Football Focus data. In Week 11, though, Lowry dramatically outsnapped Clark at end. However, that was also the only game in the last five where Clark posted a respectable grade from PFF, notching a 65 — the only time in the last five weeks where he’s put up a number above 50.
PFF data isn’t everything of course, but I think this does lend some credence to the “matchup” theory. The Packers are trying to get Clark into what they see as better spots, but he isn’t necessarily playing better as a result, and it’s also putting Lowry on the field more. That, in turn, makes an already weak Packers’ run defense even weaker.
Is there a solution here? The obvious one seems to be playing TJ Slaton more, but with Clark on the nose, there really isn’t much for him to do, as evidenced by the below chart. When Clark is playing nose tackle, Slaton isn’t. And when Slaton isn’t playing nose tackle, he isn’t playing much at all.
It seems like the Packers could get around this by playing TJ Slaton more. When Clark was getting more end snaps earlier in the season, Slaton had a corresponding increase in time at NT. See if you can spot when Clark's shift to NT really happened. pic.twitter.com/eKdv8boY4R— Jon Meerdink (@JonMeerdink) November 30, 2022
I don’t think we should draw sweeping conclusions from this information. Football playing time being what it is, we’re probably talking about six to eight snaps per game here, at most. But in a season where the Packers have made many questionable decisions about playing time, it’s a data point that I don’t think we can dismiss out of hand, either. It’s important to ask why things happen the way they do, and if teams don’t have a good answer, it should lead us to call other aspects of their process into question, too.