GREEN BAY – Dean Lowry is going to remember his mindset more than any particular moment from his strong finish to last season.
"Cut it loose" served him pretty well.
Thrust into a much larger role than anticipated on the Packers' defensive line due to injuries to Muhammad Wilkerson, Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark, Lowry put together the best sustained stretch of solid play over his first three NFL campaigns.
During the final eight games of 2018, Lowry recorded 35 of his career-best 57 tackles on the year, all three of his sacks, all four of his deflected passes, plus a forced fumble and fumble recovery.
Take a look at photos of Packers DL Dean Lowry from the 2018 season.
Gaining some comfort level with defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's scheme certainly played a part in Lowry's late-season surge, but that wasn't all. The former fourth-round draft pick from Northwestern also simply felt more confident as an NFL player in general, knowing what his body was capable of and trusting his instincts to attack.
"A lot of times guys that are young players think too much, just try to do the right thing and be in their gap. But towards the end of the year, I just wanted to go out there and play, and just play fast, and not really have anything holding me back," Lowry said as the Packers wrapped up their offseason program last month.
"I was coming off the ball better, getting great knock-back, and getting off blocks."
As Lowry heads into his fourth season, he's far less focused on his next contract as on maintaining that "let it rip" approach. Always a capable run stopper and bull rusher, the 6-foot-6, 296-pound lineman wants to continue expanding his game.
Over his first few years in the NFL, Lowry already has learned how to be effective lining up almost anywhere across the defensive front, from the nose, to the three-technique outside the guard, to the five-technique on the tackle. That in itself was a change from his college days, when he lined up almost exclusively as a defensive end.
Now he wants to add a greater variety of pass-rush moves to his repertoire, so he can more consistently get after quarterbacks. That's what he wants to "hone in on" with position coach Jerry Montgomery most this season.
"I think the past few years I've been more of a power rusher, just being content with pushing the pocket," he said. "But it's kind of hard to get sacks on all the bull rushes. So you want to bring to practice what Coach is teaching us, use that in a game, just kind of letting it loose, going out there, trying moves and see what happens."
He believes another productive offseason with his strength and conditioning will help, but he can't be as certain about his workload. Daniels and Clark will be back from their injuries, and additions at outside linebacker in free agent Za'Darius Smith and rookie first-round draft pick Rashan Gary will factor in as well, with Pettine planning to have edge rushers move inside in certain packages.
Lowry's not worried about his snap count, taking the approach that if he's productive when he plays, he'll earn the time in the rotation up front he deserves. And the deeper that rotation, the more successful the defense can be over the course of a long season.
"Just comparing this point last year to now, we're so much further ahead as a defense," he said. "Last year at this time, we were just trying to get down the basics, just trying to line up right. Now we're more of that graduate-level part of the defense, understanding the details, the ins and outs. We know what we're going to do, so we have to go out there and play fast.
"Physically this is the best I've ever felt. I'm a very good place right now, with strength and speed, so I'm really excited about this year."