Packers Defense rounding into shape as winter awaits

The Green Bay Packers (5-1) open the month of November with the Minnesota Vikings (1-5) this Sunday at Lambeau Field. It will be the first Packers home game since October 5th and the high on Sunday is a brisk 37 degrees. Including Sunday, the Packers will play 6 of their remaining 10 games in Green Bay and 4 of those home games come after Thanksgiving.

Hard nosed, blue collar Packer football in the cold months of Wisconsin go together like Deer Hunting and Venison. While it remains true that football has evolved through the decades where now passing is prominent and Quarterback play is key, running the football effectively and sound defensive play are still more often than not key characteristics of championship teams.

The 2020 Packers defense has been a mixed bag of results through six games. In their first two games of the season against the Vikings and Lions, the defense tallied 6 sacks, 2 interceptions, a safety and a touchdown. The Saints game wasn’t pretty with missed tackles and open running lanes but they managed to generate a timely Saints fumble and another key 4th quarter stop. They handled Atlanta with relative ease as the Falcons continued to self-destruct. Tampa Bay was a poor performance all around and a “Burn the Tape” kind of day for the Packers defense. They played well last week at Houston.

As we look ahead into November and December, I see a Packers defense rounding into shape and becoming a strong enough unit to be a part of a Super Bowl winning team. The progression we’ve seen with some of their players over the course of the season gives me reason to believe this.

Defensive Line:

It goes without saying that Kenny Clark, the 5th year Defensive Tackle out of UCLA is a star player in the NFL. In 2019, outside of Clark, the Packers primarily relied on Dean Lowry and Tyler Lancaster to be their key guys to battle in the trenches and make plays.

While the Packers still have all 3 of those players in 2020, we’ve seen the development of two other defensive lineman who have and will continue to be impactful for the Packers defense.

One of those players is Montravius Adams, a 4th year guy from Auburn. Injuries and inconsistent play troubled Adams in his first three seasons but we’ve clearly seen an improved player over the course of six games in 2020. Adams (6’4, 304 lb) has noticeably flashed on different plays this season, creating penetration in the backfield and blowing up several run plays. Packers defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery had this to say about Adams after the Tampa game:

“He’s doing some better things. He’s showing up, he’s doing the little things right, he’s playing hard, he’s holding point. He had some splash plays in there that kind of showed up.”

The other defensive lineman that has played well this season and continues to improve is 2nd year man Kingsley Keke from Texas A&M. Keke had 2 sacks on Drew Brees in the primetime Sunday night game against the Saints and continues to get better as a football player. Jerry Montgomery said this about Keke, also after the Tampa game:

“I know a lot of people talk about the stats, the stats, the stats. Some of things you guys don’t see is a guy who has grown physically on the field playing with better fundamentals, knocking the line of scrimmage back, being disruptive at times. Even though he may not make the play, he might be sending it to somebody else. He’s gotten better at the things we’re asking him to do. I’m just excited because he is stacking those bricks. He may not have two sacks every game but I wouldn’t be shocked if that happens again to him at some point in time.”

Outside Linebacker:

In terms of rushing the passer, Za’Darius Smith has picked up where he left off in 2019; he’s currently on pace for a career high 16 sacks and continues to prove as one of the best free agent signings in Packers history.

Preston Smith has seemingly regressed in 2020 through six games. Stats are far from everything but they also cannot be completely discounted. Preston is on pace for 1.5 sacks in 2020, a far reach from the 12.5 he had in 2019. Last week against Houston, Smith played his best game of the season and hopefully gives him something to build on.

Rashan Gary is far from a finished product but we have no doubt seen improvement from the 2019 1st round pick from Michigan. Gary has done a nice job in the run game, flashing his physicality and has had several successful pass rushes by either pressuring or sacking the quarterback. Gary is still in high “development” mode but the results he’s had through the first six games of 2020 are mostly positive.

Inside Linebacker:

The Packers elected to not re-sign Blake Martinez after the 2019 season and replaced him with free agent ILB Christian Kirksey. Looking ahead at the 2020 Packers before August, I think many people expected the two starting inside linebackers to be Kirksey and the winner of the Ty Summers/Oren Burks battle in training camp. Although it is still too early to tell, many Packers fans are beaming with optimism about two different players moving forward.

If you follow the Packers, you know I’m talking about Krys Barnes and Kamal Martin. Both players are rookies and both of them played together as Packers for the first time last Sunday against Houston.

Barnes, an undrafted rookie from UCLA, has turned heads. He’s tackled well, he’s played with alarming physicality and has given the Packers juice at the position through six games that they’ve often lacked over the last 10 years. It’s remained to be seen on just how good Barnes will be but there is thing for sure; the man can play football. Packers Defensive Coordinator Mike Pettine on Barnes:

“He’s always got that look in his eyes that he’s locked in and I think the guys respect that”

Barnes on his play and continuing to improve:

“From the time I started, I had to have confidence in myself. That’s what kind of got me through as well as my relationship with God. I think that’s kind of helped me stay calm, helped me stay level-headed throughout this whole process and not get on this rollercoaster of being high and low.”

“It’s tremendous for me to get out there and be able to see the things I want to see to get better at. I’m going to continue to take it a game at a time and continue to improve each week. That’s the goal.”

The other inside linebacker not named Kirksey, Summers or Burks is 5th round rookie Kamal Martin from the University of Minnesota. Martin has played a grand total of one NFL game in his career, as he just returned from injury last week against Houston. If last week is indicative of his future play, Martin is going to be a damn good football player.

As I mentioned several times to get the point across, it’s still “too early to tell, work in progress mode” for Barnes and Martin. They’ve played a combined 7 NFL games in their careers. Both are rookies but both are promising rookies. They look good and are making plays. We’ve certainly seen much, much worse at the position over the last 10 years. A combination of Kirksey, Barnes and Martin could be good enough or better as the Packers move forward in the season.

Secondary:

Packers CB Jaire Alexander is an elite, lockdown player. He deserves to be in the conversation of best CB’s in the NFL. It’s a luxury for the Packers to have such an excellent Cornerback in their secondary.

CB Kevin King is a very solid player and has battled injuries throughout the season. It’ll be great to have him back on the field when he is fully healthy. With his time away, he’s opened the door for Josh Jackson to receive more playing time.

Jackson has played better in 2020 than he had in his previous 2 seasons. Although there is still a lot to be desired from the 2018 2nd round pick, Jackson has shown in flashes good tackling and good coverage. Consistency has been his biggest challenge; however, Jackson is improving, there’s no denying it. He’s a better player now than he ever has been. If the Packers cornerbacks are fully healthy, the combination of Alexander, King, Chandon Sullivan and Jackson are better than most teams in the NFL.

In the back-end, Adrian Amos is a very solid football player and the Packers are lucky to have him at safety. Additionally, he played his best game of the season last week against the Texans as it hopefully continues to accentuate his play.

Outside of Amos, the Packers have Darnell Savage, Will Redmond and Raven Greene.

Savage is a 2nd year, 1st round pick that played well last season and has been plagued with injuries and a lack of splash plays to begin 2020. Make no mistake with Savage: he’s still a young, developing football player who has excellent speed and huge hitting-power at Safety. It’ll be great to have him back on the field when he’s ready to go and hopefully it’ll boost the Packers defense later in the season as he returns to form and gets more reps under his belt.

Andy Herman, an excellent Packers Media Coverage Guy had Will Redmond as his 2nd highest graded defensive player for the Packers last week against Houston. Redmond replaced Savage in the lineup and played well. He’s a solid guy to have for depth as teams could do much worse for backup safeties.

Raven Greene, as many Packers fans are aware, is a tremendously promising football player, he just needs to stay healthy. If he can continue to stay on the field, the Packers will be a better football team for it.

Wrap Up:

The Packers may not be the Buccaneers or Steelers defensively but they are certainly good enough to be a part of a championship team. They have extremely good players at every level of the defense in Kenny Clark, Za’Darius Smith and Jaire Alexander. Additionally, the Packers have an infusion of young, hungry and improving players at all levels and gives them excellent depth.

While the first six games of the season have been a mixed bag, the Packers defense appears to be on the rise as we head into cold-weather football.

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Alex grew up in a family of Chicago Bears fans in the suburbs of Chicago but was always a diehard Packers fan. Alex\\\'s AIM name when he was in elementary/middle school was PackerAlex. He now lives in Nashville, Tennessee and you can follow him on twitter at @Alex_Mayer93.

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