GREEN BAY – Sunday night officially marked the one-year anniversary of Kingsley Keke's NFL debut against the Denver Broncos last September.
Anybody looking for an indicator of how far the Packers' defensive lineman has come over that time got a glimpse of it against the New Orleans Saints.
Keke, making his second start in place of an injured Kenny Clark, recorded the first two sacks of his NFL career on back-to-back series in the second quarter of an eventual 37-30 victory.
In 28 snaps, the 6-foot-3, 288-pound defensive lineman also batted down a pass and was credited with the first forced fumble of his career. Keke finished the game as the Packers' second-highest graded player, according to Pro Football Focus.
"I feel great, man," Keke said. "Being able to get to the quarterback and help my team out, being disruptive and making some plays back there."
Keke's first sack shifted momentum back in the Packers' favor, with the second-year pro coming on a delayed stunt around the left side after lining up as a three-technique tackle in Green Bay's dime package on third-and-10.
He even managed to strip Saints quarterback Drew Brees of the ball. Although New Orleans recovered, the 6-yard loss pushed it back to its own 19-yard line. Green Bay took its first lead of the game on the ensuing possession with a 5-yard touchdown pass to receiver Allen Lazard.
Keke came back later in the quarter to sack Brees again out of a modified base package with five defenders on the line of scrimmage and only one linebacker (Ty Summers) behind them.
With Brees holding onto the ball, Keke powered inside Pro Bowl left guard Andrus Peat to drop the future Hall of Fame quarterback for a 7-yard loss on first-and-10.
"I thought Keke did a great job," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. "He used his hands well. He shed well. He was obviously disruptive on the quarterback with a sack-fumble – which ultimately they recovered. It was a good step in the right direction and now that he's done that one game, he's got to build upon that, and that's the expectation. Now that's the standard that he has to live up to each and every game."
LaFleur credited Keke for having "a great week of practice" heading into the Saints game. The playing opportunities haven't hurt, either. The former fifth-round pick has played nearly as many defensive snaps through the first three games (92) as he did in 14 regular-season games as a rookie a year ago (94).
Keke, who celebrated his 24th birthday on Saturday, played everywhere on Texas A&M's line but it was his senior year with the Aggies (51 tackles and seven sacks) that got him noticed.
His emergence Sunday night could be what enables defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to be more creative with not only how he utilizes Keke, but also Clark once he returns from the groin injury that's sidelined him the past two weeks.
LaFleur's challenge to his young defensive lineman is to stack success again next Monday night against Atlanta. After the defense weathered some injuries and adversity in New Orleans, Keke knows it's up to him and his fellow 2019 draftees to perform.
"There's a lot of key players who stepped up for us that made key plays for us," said Keke of how the defense closed out Sunday's win. "We practice hard. We put a lot of work in. So when we get to the game, it's second nature. That's what we do as a defense and we're just going to keep building on it and keep working."