Packers new defense brings change for Kenny Clark and more disruption opportunities

By: Paul Bretl 5/24/24

Green Bay Packers’ defensive tackle Kenny Clark has spent his entire career, including his time at UCLA, playing in a 3-4 defense. So, as Clark enters his ninth NFL season, change is in store for him, but it’s something he’s looking forward to.

“I think it’s going to be really good,” said Clark on transitioning to a 4-3 scheme. “It’s one of things where all my career I’ve been kind of been playing this way, but in more of a controlled way. 

“And I think now this is giving us a chance to shut all that other stuff off, no technique really and just use your ability and just go up the field and be disruptive. I just think with my get-off and how I am, I think it’s going to suit me well.”

Naturally, under new defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley, much of the attention from the outside has been focused on the secondary and the change in play style on the back end. However, the Packers’ defensive front is going to be asked to do some different things as well. 

In Joe Barry’s two-gap defense, as the name suggests, each member of the defensive line was responsible for two gaps, tasked with reading the movements of the offensive line and the backfield, then determining which gap was the most vulnerable and trying to fill it. Interior defenders are more so space eaters in this style of defense, helping to create opportunities for the edge rushers and linebackers to make the plays.

In Hafley’s defense, however, with the defensive line responsible for only one gap, there should be a much more proactive play style instead of reactive, with the front asked to get north and south quickly, penetrating their way into the backfield, rather than reacting to what the offense is doing.

Defensive line coach Jason Rebrovich calls this an “attack front,” where it’s all about “TFLs and sacks.”

“It’s been awesome,” said Clark. “I’ve been able to watch Seattle, the 49ers, I watched a lot of Buffalo with Kyle Williams. So, if you play with the right mentality and you’re getting off the ball and playing with the right effort level, this defense is just made for that.

“You’ve got guys like Michael Bennett, he was like 270. He was a great player. I’ve got a lot of respect for Michael Bennett. He was in at the 3-tech, he’s at the 4i (inside shoulder of the tackle), he’s at the nose and he was able to disrupt and make all those plays just with his mentality and how he plays the game. And I think it just suits us well, it suits me well and how I like to play the game.”

In addition to the more aggressive and proactive play style that Hafley’s defense asks of the front, it also means that Clark won’t be lining up at defensive end anymore, “just 3-tech and nose…but primarily 3-tech,” said Clark at his locker. 

Even in what is, relatively speaking, a more passive front under Barry, Clark remained highly productive. He set a career-high in sacks last season with 7.5, while his 66 pressures were the sixth-most among all interior defensive linemen. However, under Hafley, where the defensive tackle’s job is to get into the backfield as quickly as possible, the opportunity is there for Clark to be even more disruptive.

“Every offseason I would go out and train with guys,” Clark said. “I’m a big fan of the game, so I trained with DeForest Buckner and (Arik) Armstead and all those guys, and they played a 4-3 their whole career. 

“So I would check up with them and see what it’s like playing in that. I always wondered what it was like, but now that I’m in it, I see how they made so many TFLs and all those plays they were always making. It all makes sense. They were really just cutting it loose that whole time.”

With the need for a relentless pursuit of the ball carrier a staple of what the defenisve front’s responsibilities are going to be, that increases the importance of having depth within the position group because of the constant effort and energy being exerted–meaning that players will be rotated heavily. 

To help with this, Clark also said that he wants to get lighter. He played last season at 305 but might try getting to the 297 range, adding that he hasn’t been under 300 pounds since high school.

“Individual group has been crazy,” he added. “When we do drills and stuff I’m like, ‘Damn.’ We’ve got like a big group of defensive linemen now, so it’s going to be a lot different. But with this system, you’ve got to play like that. You can’t be out there like six snaps in a row and exert that much energy and make an impact on this defense. 

“With this defense, you’ve got to be able to go and really get off the ball and give that energy and that effort every single play. So, we’ll definitely be rotating a lot this season.”

Improved play from the defense as a whole starts with more consistency up front. This is a group that ranked 23rd in average yards per carry allowed last season and gave up 200-plus rushing yards in four games. The pass rush also ran very hot and cold. 

The quickest way to blow up any offensive play is with immediate pressure up the middle. That not only becomes an emphasis for the defensive front but the focal point of what Clark and his teammates are going to be asked to do.

“I was able to make some plays,” said Clark, “but now I’m going to make more. I’ve got to make more.”