The Packers Defensive Line Looks Better Than It Has In A Decade

In 2010, the Packers won the Super Bowl in part due to dominant defensive line play. In the 12 years since then, they did very little improve the unit... until this year.

Kenny Clark is a bona fide stud. He's a game-breaker capable of single-handedly taking over the trenches.

The problem is that for the last few years, the Packers have counted on him to single-handedly take over the trenches.

Look at who had the most snaps along the defensive line besides Kenny Clark:

  • Dean Lowry is a role player who can set a solid edge and do little else
  • Kingsley Keke showed promise, but was cut mid-season
  • Tyler Lancaster was the epitome of "just a guy"
  • TJ Slaton was a developmental rookie who played limited sub packages and special teams

The year before, it was the same guys except draft day disappointment Montravius Adams was in place of TJ Slaton.

In 2019, it was the same story. The same guys. The same lack of impact from the defensive line.

The Packers haven't invested free agent dollars or premium draft capital on the defensive line in a long time. They instead focused on the secondary (to defend the pass) and edge rushers (to rush the passer).

That's a fine way to prioritize a defense, but the last time the Packers won a Super Bowl, it came with some dominant defensive line play. There was a BJ Raji pick six in the NFC Championship against the Bears and a Super Bowl pick six that came of a Howard Green hit on Ben Roethlisberger. There was also a critical forced fumble aided by Ryan Pickett in the Super Bowl and consistent pressure from Cullen Jenkins throughout the playoff run.

Those guys were consistently making plays and disrupting offenses throughout the entire playoff run.

A case could be made that Kenny Clark has been playing at a higher level than any of those guys over the last couple of years, but he's been doing it alone.

Things have changed this year.

The Packers invested a 1st round pick in Devonte Wyatt, a premium draft prospect with disruptive interior skills and contagious energy. Wyatt was a key member of a dominant Georgia defense and many draft outlets projected him to go in the top half of the 1st round.

In free agency, they brought in Jarran Reed, a former 2nd round pick who has been a starter his whole career, has playoff experience (including 3 sacks in his last 4 playoff games), and is still in his prime. At 6'3, 307, he has the frame to hold his ground against the run, but has also proven to be a capable pass rusher (as evidenced by his career-high 10.5 sacks in 2018).

The Packers can also improve from within, where TJ Slaton looks ready for a bigger role.

In the draft, the Packers may have also bought themselves some additional flexibility when they selected inside linebacker Quay Walker in the 1st round. Walker's size and skills give him the ability to rush off the edge as well as play on the inside. While he probably doesn't fit the mold of an every-down edge rusher, if he took some snaps there, it would give the Packers the ability to play Rashan Gary on the line when situations called for it. This would add complexity to their sub packages and give opposing offenses more looks to account for. 

Last year, the Packers lacked this flexibility when the injury to Za'Darius Smith robbed them of edge depth.

The Packers also still have Dean Lowry, who isn't a superstar, but is a capable role player who fits what the Packers want to do on defense. Throw in rookie Jonathan Ford as a developmental player who can take some rotational snaps, and the Packers look like they have their best defensive line in years.

Probably their best defensive line since they won the Super Bowl.

If they reach their potential, the result may just end up the same.

 

Bruce Irons has played, coached, and studied football for decades. Best-selling author of books such as A Fan's Guide To Understanding The NFL Draft, A Fan's Guide To Understanding The NFL Salary Cap, and A Fan's Guide To NFL Free Agency Hits And Misses, Bruce contributes to CheeseHeadTV and PackersForTheWin.com.

Follow Bruce Irons on Twitter at @BruceIronsNFL.

 

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7 points

Comments (42)

Fan-Friendly This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.
PackEyedOptimist's picture

July 10, 2022 at 06:32 am

For a better comparison, a look at the (my predicted) starters:
BJ Raji--Kenny Clark
Cullen Jenkins--Devonte Wyatt
Ryan Pickett--Jarran Reed/Dean Lowry
Clay Matthews--Rashan Gary
Desmond Bishop--Quay Walker
AJ Hawk--DeVondre Campbell
Frank Zombo--Preston Smith
Charles Woodson--Jaire Alexander
Tramon Williams--Eric Stokes/Rasul Douglas
Nick Collins--Adrian Amos
Charlie Peprah--Darnell Savage

I'd argue that NONE of the Super Bowl champs were markedly better than this year's starter. Oh sure, you can argue Woodson over Alexander, Jenkins over Wyatt, Collins over Amos, etc. but the 2022 guys are still excellent or excellent prospects. On the other hand, Campbell, Smith and Savage are WAY better than Hawk, Zombo and Peprah.

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Oppy's picture

July 10, 2022 at 07:51 am

You've got your safety comparisons mixed up. Savage and Collins are free safeties, Peprah and Amos are strong safeties.

I'd argue that Cullen Jenkins, Ryan Pickett, Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, Nick Collins are all markedly better better than the players you have them matched up against. I'd throw in Desmond Bishop as well, only because nobody has any idea what Quay Walker will do on an NFL field.

Still, this Packers defense is a great looking unit on paper and has stand out players at all levels.

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Coldworld's picture

July 10, 2022 at 09:13 am

The difference between the two lists is, in my view, more of established ability versus potential. The earlier group has stars later in their career. The current one is based more on what we think they could be. To me, the salient fact is that the current DL/ILB group looks much deeper than it has during any subsequent year. That’s what I am excited about.

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Oppy's picture

July 10, 2022 at 12:43 pm

I agree on Inside LB position. We'll have to disagree on the DL.

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Coldworld's picture

July 10, 2022 at 01:02 pm

I don’t think we disagree on much. My point was that the difference this year on the DL is largely based on belief in potential but that there are grounds for believing that the potential is there to be better than the years in between.

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LLCHESTY's picture

July 10, 2022 at 09:39 pm

I'm not sure people realize how much the NFL has changed in the last 10 years either. Teams play nickel and dime 50% more than they did 10-12 years ago. BJ Raiji was a very good NT for the time he played and stayed on the field on passing downs but these days he would've been taken off the field for a lighter, quicker player on 2nd and 3rd and long. Kenny is a great NT for this time period with nickel being the most played defense.

PFF has him rated as the 6th best D linemen in the NFL for 2022, one spot ahead of Vita Vea because "Across the past four seasons, no player earned a higher PFF pass-rushing grade from nose tackle alignments than Clark (91.9), and he tallied 14 more pressures from those alignments than any other player in the league since 2018."

I don't know if the talent added means more sacks for Clark this year or if teams will continue to double team him at the same rate but it definitely should add up to more sacks from the IDL group. If they double team Clark it means more opportunities for Gary, Smith and Reed or Wyatt or offenses have to keep a TE, H back or RB into block which should lead to green dog blitz opportunities for Campbell and Walker. For those that don't know the term that's a blitz where the blitzer watches the RB, if he stays in to block he blitzes, creating a 5 on 6 rush, and if he goes out into a route the blitzer covers him. It's a simple concept and the Packers are set up well for it with two ILBs capable of blitzing or covering.

Interior pressures force QBs off their marks and can still create problems on quick throws How many times have we all heard Brady hates pressure up the middle? Well now the Packers should be able to get that more often, even against top Gs and Cs.

https://www.pff.com/news/nfl-interior-defensive-line-rankings-tiers-2022

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PackAttack4155's picture

July 11, 2022 at 04:38 am

You'd think defenses playing nickel and dime more would necessitate bigger, not smaller, d-lineman to handle the inside, in case of a run. Opposing offenses have already been double teaming Clark and that hasn't translated into big sack numbers for Gary or anyone else really. Maybe the infusion of talent changes things but there's an overwhelming expectation that the d-line will be amazing without actually seeing it in action yet.

Focusing so much on the passing game with no mention to what aspect of the defense was awful last year, the run game. They were a hot mess on 2nd or 3rd and short that allowed opposing teams longer drives. Allowing 4.7 yard per carry won't win the games that matter most. The run game is where I hope the new d-line will improve.

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LLCHESTY's picture

July 11, 2022 at 03:36 pm

These days many teams are using Tite fronts to clog the inside gaps and force teams to run outside where the speed is. It's more penetration from the big guys than tying up blockers. Teams want to get into their sub packages where they're protected more from the big pass play.

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Oppy's picture

July 11, 2022 at 09:20 pm

Kenny Clark is the best Packers player on our DL since Reggie White.

He's a damn good football player.

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murf7777's picture

July 10, 2022 at 09:44 am

I agree on paper this team looks really good. IMO, to determine which team might have a better defense isn’t a comparison of all starters, but how many consistent difference makers are on the Defense. I think you had Matthews, Collins and Woodson on 2010. Maybe Raji could be added to the list. In the current roster, you have Alexander, Campbell, Clark and Gary. I think you have a potential to add Stokes to that if he can make the 2nd year jump like Matthews did. Yes, all other players on either team will make plays to some degree, but the difference makers, all-pro type of players is where the big games are won. By example, Pickett was part of the big play on the 4th quarter TO in the SB, but it was Matthews who directed the play and also made the play with Pickett. “Spill it Pickett” is now a famous quote by Matthew’s.

In addition, you have two 1st rounders to add to the potential of this team. The potential is there, but it always is this time of the year. We will have a better idea after the pre-season games are played on these two.

That all said, in comparisons of difference makers I think this team has the potential to be better.

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Oppy's picture

July 10, 2022 at 12:47 pm

In 2010 difference makers, you're missing Cullen Jenkins, Tramon Williams, and Ryan Pickett.

In 2022, you're missing Adrian Amos.

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murf7777's picture

July 11, 2022 at 08:12 am

Oppy….I think they were all very good players, but my definition of difference makers is all-pro type (best couple of players at their position) of performance.

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Oppy's picture

July 11, 2022 at 09:22 pm

Fair point, Murf.

In that case, In 2010 difference makers, you're missing Cullen Jenkins, Tramon Williams, and Ryan Pickett.

In 2022, you're missing Adrian Amos.

;)

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BruceIrons's picture

July 11, 2022 at 10:01 am

It may be an optimistic look at this point, but this defense could be special.

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Guam's picture

July 10, 2022 at 07:36 am

An improved defense and particularly an improved D-line are two of the reasons I am very excited about the upcoming season. The Packer D-line has been suspect for a number of years and they finally addressed that issue this offseason. I can't wait!

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stockholder's picture

July 10, 2022 at 08:42 am

You only had to look at the DL, to see the Defensive failure's since 2010. IN FACT IMO: The DL is why the packers have not gone to the super-bowl! Why did they wait so long? Cheap! Thats why. The packers Brain Trust got cheap. Trying to find the late gems rather than going for the Fix. You only had to look at Clark being double teamed. To know Help was needed. Forget the draft and development here. Super Bowl Teams have that front. And the biggest mistake is not paying the guy that can get to the QB. So While you're looking at Depth. I want DISRUPTION. Not RELIEF. Disruption is your biggest word that best describes: The Future, The Present, and what was needed in The past.

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murf7777's picture

July 10, 2022 at 09:54 am

Stockholder, I don’t believe it hasn’t anything to do with being cheap. Until recently the Packers have always been middle of the pack with how much of their SC they spent on an annual basis. Every team has to prioritize where they will spend their cap dollars and one of the reasons why the NFL has such parity. The Packers have chosen to put their money elsewhere than in the middle of the D. No one knows if money spent there would’ve gotten them to a SB since 2010. Also, stating IN FACT and IMO in the same comment is contradictory. One is a belief or value judgement and the other is true by evidence and supporting material.

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dobber's picture

July 10, 2022 at 10:07 am

"Every team has to prioritize where they will spend their cap dollars and one of the reasons why the NFL has such parity. The Packers have chosen to put their money elsewhere than in the middle of the D. No one knows if money spent there would’ve gotten them to a SB since 2010. "

Yup
Yup
Yup

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jannes bjornson's picture

July 10, 2022 at 10:21 am

Indeed, keep King and the Lancaster's of the world in your lineups...Stockholder hits the target again, just review the drafts since 2010.

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Oppy's picture

July 10, 2022 at 12:59 pm

Mike Neal, Datone Jones, Jerel Worthy.

The Packers had invested in DL, they just whiffed.

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jannes bjornson's picture

July 10, 2022 at 03:26 pm

That is the point. Toss in Kyrie Thornton and the rest.

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Oppy's picture

July 10, 2022 at 08:58 pm

I thought the point was the Packers don't want to spend on the DL?

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

July 11, 2022 at 02:34 am

I can't be sure, but I think he was agreeing with you. At any rate, I agree that GB invested in the DL (and on the defense in general) but either whiffed or underwhelmed.

TT didn't dip into free agency enough, but when he did, they tended to be for the defense: Woodson, Pickett, Peppers. [Hmm, I could create the meme, something like I don't spend often in free agency, but when I do, it's on defense.]

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Oppy's picture

July 10, 2022 at 01:00 pm

Datone Jones and Jerel Worthy were investments into the DL as was Mike Neal that simple didn't work out. The packers spent 2010-2013 attempting to dump money into the DL, and they missed.

After spending three years on talent for the DL, they had other positions to address with top 64 picks- didn't get back to interior linemen until they went and got Clark.

Packers not valuing top tier defensive line play isn't accurate; the Packers struggled with identifying and/or developing top tier interior defensive line play.

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stockholder's picture

July 10, 2022 at 01:43 pm

Datone Jones got messed up when they switched him. Worthy blew his knee out. Raji never was the same after they switched him. But look who they lost first. Pickett? Wilkins? And even when they did sign peppers. Or had Daniels. Comparisons were exactly like Lowrey. The scheme changed. And so did the DCs. Capers wanted them to open holes for the Lbs. The guys they drafted or brought in were not disrupters.! The DISRUPTION had to come from Perry ,Cm3, and Peppers. Making holes for the LBs was the biggest downfall in Packers history. And why this defense was rated Dead Last! Accurate? Look whats changed!

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LLCHESTY's picture

July 10, 2022 at 09:03 pm

"Raji never was the same after they switched him."

Switched him where? I don't think he was the same after he gained an extra 20 lbs. You could also argue the heavy workload he has early in his career took a toll. But he started at NT and stayed at NT.

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Oppy's picture

July 11, 2022 at 09:28 pm

Chesty, they started playing Raji off 0 and more at 3 to 5 later on.

They did it because Raji couldn't hold the point or two gap as well as Pickett.
Raji was on skates alot, because he wasn't functionally as strong as his weight, and frankly, I don't think he ever had the heart to really take the beating a true NT has to absorb down after down.

Hate to say it.. Raji was soft. He was miscast in GB and, despite his size, was really more of a quick/agile DT that would have excelled in a single gap responsibility in a 4-3 front.

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Oppy's picture

July 10, 2022 at 09:07 pm

None of that has to do with your original statement that the Packers have been historically "cheap" and won't spend on the DL.

Okay, so I get it- you don't want to play a 3-4 base defense. That's how 3-4 operates- you have a stud NT that commands a double team, DE's who can tie up the tackles and keep the OLB's clean, and the OLB's are expected to be the play makers who are strong enough to tangle with guards yet agile enough to get around tackles, and take advantage of the one-on-one or free look when it's presented.

None of that is about being cheap. It's a philosophical difference.

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LLCHESTY's picture

July 10, 2022 at 10:14 pm

Datone Jones was a square peg in a round hole. He was a 4-3 DE asked to play 3-4 DE. When that didn't work they tried him at the "elephant" spot but he was no Peppers. He might have had better luck now when teams are looking for quicker 3-4 DEs that can move further inside when teams go to their 2-4-5 nickel.

One of my main complaints about TT is he never went after a true 6'-5" 305-315 lb lengthy 3-4 DE. He got lucky with Daniels, who didn't have a lot of length but made up for it with brute force. He was supposedly interested in Wilkerson and Heyward who went in the two spots before the Packers pick in 2011.

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Oppy's picture

July 11, 2022 at 09:31 pm

Yup, gotta have long levers to keep OT's hands out of your chest and keep them tied up for your OLBs

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BruceIrons's picture

July 11, 2022 at 10:05 am

I don't think they waited so long because they're cheap, I think it's just a matter of priority.

You can' upgrade everything in one offseason. The Packers have been building and steadily increasing the defense. They started with pass rush and secondary, then inside linebacker, and now the defensive line is the finishing piece.

Could they have started with a line and built out? Sure, but you can't upgrade everything at once. The salary cap won't allow it.

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packer132's picture

July 10, 2022 at 08:59 am

Packer fans can't wait until training camp and preseason games to see which players will stand out. Re-signing Campbell and Douglas was huge, and they have a year of the defensive scheme down. Walker and Wyatt look good on paper, and Clark will not see as many double teams. My surprise player is Reed who played at Alabama. There is finally good DL depth, and I hope Ford has a good camp. A healthy Alexander is big along with Stokes improving on a fine rookie season. Gute will tweak the roster before game #1, and maybe a TE will be added. This looks like the best overall team in some time.

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PatrickGB's picture

July 10, 2022 at 10:17 am

Damn, you are starting to turn me into an optimist! Yes the current defense has the potential to look at good as an historic one. I spent too much time worrying about the lack of quality receivers that I forgot the improvement from our defense.

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TarynsEyes's picture

July 10, 2022 at 10:58 am

"Probably their best defensive line since they won the Super Bowl."

"If they reach their potential, the result may just end up the same."

Both of these statements add up to be nothing more than the 'Pape Tigers' of expectations of previous years since the great rise of that SB-winning team of 2010-11.

There are a lot of assumptions being made in this article, not to mention the comparison list of one commenter, which itself has created a new line of blind optimism.

The expectations for Reed seem to ignore the defensive unit ability(proven) when he had his glory years, and how other players previously brought to GB with the same expectations have failed to live up to them. It seems GB is more likely to get the player on the downside and expectations proved false. For Reed to have that expected impact much needs to happen with a JAG, an overused veteran, a huge step up from a 2nd-year player, and much from rookies that seem to reach even greater levels than ever before expected.

I saw a comment where this defense is called 'The Legion of Doom' although that can be taken two ways, so wouldn't it be best to wait and see if they can at least light the fuse before expecting the explosion that can be in the face of opponents or their own.

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LLCHESTY's picture

July 10, 2022 at 01:56 pm

Your negativity is showing again. Reading your comment the uninformed would think the DL got worse not better. Lowry was the 2nd best player on the D line last year and Reed was more productive 3 of the last 4 years than Lowry in 2021(injured in 2019). That's better. Counting on rookie D linemen to productive right off the bat isn't the best way to go about things but it's not hard to see Wyatt is way better than whoever you consider the Packers 3rd or 4th best D linemen last year. Slaton showed his potential last year but needs to get better at hand fighting and disengaging from his blocker. It's not a reach to think he'll be better in year 2 than year 1. The overall depth is much much better.

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TarynsEyes's picture

July 10, 2022 at 02:10 pm

It isn't better until it plays better and becomes fact.

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murf7777's picture

July 11, 2022 at 08:17 am

Very true statement Taryn, but it’s also true to state at this time of the year all you have is our opinions to share because they are not playing ball.

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Packer_Fan's picture

July 10, 2022 at 12:01 pm

The defense has some good talent. But Barry needs to bring them together to become dominant.

And yes, Gute finally brought in talent to create this for now a talented defense on paper. Something that TT didn't do.

I am excited for this team. Winning a Super bowl with defense rather than the arm of Rodgers.

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Lphill's picture

July 11, 2022 at 05:25 am

As talented as the D line was in 2010 I recall having to use an O lineman on some plays I think it was Sitton or maybe it was 2011 but I distinctly remember using an O lineman on the D line .

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KnockTheSnotOutOfYou's picture

July 11, 2022 at 08:08 am

The premise the DL has more depth and talent in a long time is true. The DL has not been a difference maker for many years. No predictions but excited to watch.

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LambeauPlain's picture

July 11, 2022 at 09:27 am

It has been perplexing watching the Pack focus on OL talent while treating the DL as a second priority.

With both O and D plays it starts up front with the big men and when they succeed on a play, the play is usually a win overall.

Finally, the DL room has potential to approach Fritz's group of White, Jones, Dotson and Brown who catalyzed Schumer's #1 ranked Defense.

I do believe Clark, Lowry, Reed, Wyatt, Slayton, and Heflin have potential to disrupt offensive plays the way Team Fritz did.

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BruceIrons's picture

July 11, 2022 at 10:07 am

It's the most talent they've had at the position in a long time and I'm excited at the potential.

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