GREEN BAY – The question wasn’t even about Kenny Clark.
Speaking with reporters during the bye week, Packers outside linebackers coach Mike Smith was asked about the disruption Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith had caused two days earlier in the team’s 24-16 win over Carolina in Week 10.
As much as the Smiths’ combined seven QB hits and three sacks stood out in Green Bay’s eighth win of the season, there was another performance Smith felt deserved equal praise – Clark’s relentless bulldozing from his post at defensive tackle.
“Kenny did a great job,” Smith said. “I think that was Kenny’s best game rushing inside. That center was struggling now.”
That center was Matt Paradis, a fifth-year veteran who’s started each of the 67 NFL games he’s played in. And when Clark wasn’t backing up Paradis, he was a nuisance for four-time Pro Bowl right guard Trai Turner.
The official stat line for Clark only read four tackles (one for a loss) but it was perhaps the 24-year-old defensive tackle’s best game of the year.
Clark stayed in quarterback Kyle Allen’s orbit for all four quarters and helped contain Christian McCaffrey to only 50 rushing yards on 10 carries through the A and B gaps, along with chasing down the MVP candidate for a 3-yard loss on a blown-up screen.
Most importantly, there were the several occasions when Clark came within a fingernail of sacking Allen, including on his bull rush of Paradis on third-and-7 in the second quarter.
Last year, it undoubtedly would’ve gone for a sack but Preston Smith closed a split-second sooner to drop Allen for a 7-yard loss.
Clark had a few other opportunities in the second half, including an impressive pressure of Allen out of a three-man rush to force the quarterback from the pocket.
“That’s a lot of what we talk about up here, just getting pressures, affecting the quarterback,” Clark said. “Those are negative plays, too. So the more you can have those, that helps the defense.”
Pro Football Focus credited Clark with a career-high 10 pressures against the Panthers. Despite having only 1½ sacks, Clark’s 41 pressures this year are fourth most in the league among defensive tackles, trailing only All-Pro veterans Aaron Donald, Calais Campbell and Fletcher Cox.
This season has signaled a shift in how teams attack Clark, who has become a focal point for offensive coordinators after his 55 tackles and 6½ sacks in 13 games during a breakout 2018.
Defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery has noticed his 6-foot-3, 314-pound pupil being double-teamed significantly more this year and for good reason. When Paradis and Turner handled him one-on-one, Clark was a headache and a handful.
“He’s doing his job at a high level; it’s just hard to make plays when you’ve got two guys on you,” Montgomery said. “So what he does is, he takes blocks up for other guys to make plays.”
Another reality is the hourglass to get after the quarterback has been reduced with the arrival of the Smiths, who have combined for 18½ sacks through the first 10 games. On plays where the quarterback holds the ball a tick longer, there’s often an edge rusher quickly in pursuit.
Those who know Clark best understand the value he brings to the defensive front on every down, which makes it hard to take him off the field. Like last year, Clark has once again been one of the league’s most active interior defensive linemen. He’s averaged 56 snaps per game this year (83.2% of Green Bay’s total).
“Everybody wants the sacks. Everyone wants the stats because that’s what the fans see and this is a big entertainment business (with) a lot of voting for Pro Bowl,” defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster said. “But when it comes to the pressures and how he changes the game, you can’t see that on paper but it’s definitely a forced to be reckoned with.
“His stuff is seen and unseen. He deserves credit for the credit he’s getting and he deserves credit for the credit he’s not getting. He definitely changes the game in that way.”
Lancaster believes Clark’s performance against the Panthers proves again why the fourth-year defensive tackle deserves Pro Bowl consideration. While everyone is in agreement there are areas of the defense the Packers must clean up over the last six games of the regular season, Clark is a big part of the solution.
As for his near-misses, Clark stays focused on his responsibilities and what’s ahead of him. The Packers have another stiff test Sunday against the nine-win 49ers, who boast both the league’s No. 2 scoring offense and rushing offense.
“They run the ball really well. That’s the No. 1 focus,” said Clark on Monday. “They have three really good backs. They use their fullback really well, too. We’re going to have our hands full on defense. They have a lot of good skill positions and their quarterback is playing really well. We have a challenge ahead of us.”