Packers' defense embraces lofty expectations for 2022

Top-10 unit boasts seven first-round picks, 10 returning starters

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S Adrian Amos and LB De'Vondre Campbell

GREEN BAY – This is the week Kenny Clark has been waiting for.

Excited about the prospects for a loaded Packers defense, the two-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman spent the offseason counting down the days until Sunday's regular-season opener against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium.

And for good reason. The anticipation on defense has been high all summer, as Green Bay returns one of its deepest and most talented units since the dawning of free agency in the NFL.

"I've been excited about this year ever since last year ended," Clark said. "I've been ready to play."

The stars have aligned, both figuratively and literally, with seven former first-round picks, two All-Pros (Jaire Alexander and De'Vondre Campbell) and several other emerging playmakers composing this year's unit.

There were a few subtractions. The Packers will play against two of them this Sunday in outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith and slot cornerback Chandon Sullivan. But there's also optimism the best is yet to come for a defense that ranked inside the top 10 in both total yards and takeaways last season.

It all begins up front with 2016 NFL Draft classmates Clark, Dean Lowry and Jarran Reed, who signed as an unrestricted free agent in March, leading the defensive line.

The unit is flanked by recently extended outside linebacker Preston Smith and Rashan Gary, who led Green Bay's defense in both quarterback hits (28) and sacks (9½) last season.

Gary was one of the more enthusiastic players in the locker room on Wednesday, as the 23-year-old pass rusher pondered the possibilities.

"We've all got one goal and everybody in the outside world knows our one goal, and that's what we're all pushing for," Gary said. "You look and you see Preston, you see Kenny, you see Dean, you see J-Reed, you see DC, you see Ja, you see (Darnell) Savage. There's guys that you know you can't let down. It's just the standard and love we have for each other."

Behind the defensive front is the strongest array of inside linebackers Green Bay has featured in at least a decade with first-round pick Quay Walker joining Campbell, two-year starter Krys Barnes and former sixth-round pick Isaiah McDuffie.

The nickel secondary remains intact, with Adrian Amos and Savage patrolling the back end, and veteran Rasul Douglas and 2021 first-round pick Eric Stokes working alongside Alexander at cornerback.

Fully recovered from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for much of last season, Alexander looked like his old shutdown self again during training camp. In fact, the entire secondary was a difficult problem to solve, especially during the two days New Orleans conducted joint practices with Green Bay last month.

"We just have the confidence of the guys next to us," Amos said. "A lot of us have gotten a lot of reps with one another. We just have that confidence to go out and execute. We put pressure on each other to go out and play well."

Sunday's opener has felt like a long time coming for Green Bay's veterans. The rookie Walker was the only starter listed on the Packers' initial defensive depth chart who played in the preseason. Even then, it usually was for only two or three series per game.

Conversely, the Packers will get a significant test right away against a talented Vikings offense with two of the game's scariest playmakers in Justin Jefferson and Dalvin Cook.

But that's also the type of competition Green Bay wants, especially after repping against reigning MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers for the past six weeks.

"I'm excited. I'm tired of going against A-Rod, honestly," said Douglas, with a wry smile. "I'm just ready. We haven't played in the preseason except the joint practices. I'm excited to go against other people that we can actually hit, tackle and have fun flying around."

The defense understands the responsibility that comes with returning so many established starters and first-round picks but isn't shying away from those expectations.

This summer, Clark noticed a special energy permeating throughout the defense. In order to realize that potential, however, everyone has a job to do.

"We embrace it. We love the hype," Clark said. "This defense, we're going to stick together throughout whatever. I think this is a really close group of defenders and we got a lot of talent. I'm excited to see how we all come together Week 1."

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