In last week’s article, we talked about how the Green Bay Packers can reproduce what Jalen Ramsey did for the Ram’s defense last season. Today, I want to talk about how the Packers’ defensive scheme can replicate what Aaron Donald does.
Before we get started, it’s important to note that the true answer is that the Packers can’t replicate Aaron Donald. Donald is a generational talent and player. Really, what we’re looking for is a way for the Packers to scheme up a replacement for 75% or 80% of Aaron Donald.
In the Ram’s defense, Donald lined up as a 3-technique (meaning he would typically line up on the guard’s outside shoulder). When Wade Phillips was the defensive coordinator, this was enough. He split double teams, pressured the quarterback, and generally wreaked enough havoc to win multiple defensive player of the year awards.
Under Brandon Staley last season, the Rams got a lot more creative moving Donald around on third downs to create one-on-one matchups. We’ll need to evaluate who can play 3-technique for Green Bay and who the best candidate is to have schemed up one-on-one matchups.
Brian Gutekunst is no doubt hoping Kingsley Keke can take the 3-tech mantle for the Packers. Keke was a mostly unheralded 5th round pick. He was too big and slow to play on the edge but not big enough to play inside. At least that was the excuse for his fall in the draft.
In the 2020 season, Keke improved his pressure rate to over 10% and took over a few games for a drive or two. If he can take the next step in 2021, expect him to be the full time 3-technique in passing situations.
We don’t know how well he can move up and down the line. Rushing from the edge wasn’t a strength of his even in college. I would guess Keke will do the most damage lining up across from a guard (or even center in certain looks).
Clark has been the best pass rushing nose tackle in the league over the past three seasons or so. You surely heard about that by now if you’re reading this article, but you may not have seen much production live in Packers’ games.
That’s because as a nose tackle, Clark is dealing with double teams on almost every play. Clark’s 28 pressures (in 13 games) last season was more than all but 3 nose tackles. It was 70 fewer than Aaron Donald’s 98 pressures.
2020 was an injury riddled down year for Clark. In 2019, he had 62 total pressures, significantly more than any non-Vita Vea nose tackle and third most among all interior defenders.
Look for the Packers to get Kenny Clark back to his old form or even better by moving him up and down the d-line to create more one-on-one matchups.
Za’Darius Smith signed as (and is paid like) an edge defender and has spent most of his time with Green Bay on the edge. He’s done most of his damage from the inside.
Picture Za’Darius strolling around the interior d-line and picking a gap to shoot at the last minute. Watch his 2019 highlights and you’ll see that same type of rush 20 times.
Like Kenny Clark, Smith took a step back in 2020 while facing more and more double teams. If Smith and Clark return to 2019 form, expect the Packers to generate plenty of pass rush with just four guys.
Gary is the dark horse candidate. He broke out in late 2020 with a perfected bull rush off the edge and has reportedly leaned up this off-season to be faster. I fully expect him to continue on his current trendline winning on the edge. But he can contribute inside too.
I expect Gary to be in on a lot on stunts this season. Gary lined up as a 9-tech with Dean Lowry or Kingsley Keke next to him as a 5-tech is dangerous for the offensive line. He has an elite combination of quickness and strength looping around to penetrate inside.
Gary may not line up inside as often as the other players on this list, but his bull rushes from the edge will be supremely important to those guys. Interior rushes rarely work without an edge rusher constraining the quarterback to the pocket.
As I said in the intro, it’s unlikely that the Packers will be able to fully replicate what Aaron Donald does for the Rams defense. We can be confident that the team has sufficient ammunition to keep someone on the field to be a version of Aaron Donald.
Mike Price is a lifelong Packers fan currently living in Utah. You can follow him on twitter at @themikeprice.