Fackrell finds niche role on defense

Michael Cohen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY — Roughly 15 hours after the Green Bay Packers lost to the Minnesota Vikings, outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell spoke quietly in a locker room filled mostly with disappointment. A replacement quarterback humbled the defense the night before, and now the Packers trailed in the NFC North standings after just two games.

Green Bay Packers linebacker Kyler Fackrell sacks Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford in the second half at Lambeau Field.

Yet in the realm of personal success versus team results, Fackrell, a rookie, had reason to be pleased. His underwhelming training camp was a thing of the past, and the coaches handed him playing time for the second consecutive week.

“There are a lot of great pass rushers here, a lot of great players in front of me,” Fackrell said. “But with the way that they play, the energy that they play with, it’s necessary for us to kind of rotate through guys. To know they have that kind of confidence in me, I’m very happy to hear that. I’m going to continue to try to affect whatever plays I get in on.”

POLLHow good will the Packers’ Kyler Fackrell be?

Fackrell was selected in the third round of the 2016 draft after a five-year career at Utah State. General manager Ted Thompson described him as “kind of an all-around guy,” who could rush the passer as well as drop into coverage. They liked his length to fend off tackles (33-inch arms); they liked his athleticism to rush the passer off the edge (4.65 seconds in the 40-yard dash; 34 1/2-inch vertical leap).

Flash forward and Fackrell’s potential has translated into a niche role for defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who rotates his outside linebackers in pairs. Fackrell played seven snaps each against the Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars, and then injuries expanded his role significantly. When the Packers hosted the Detroit Lions last Sunday, they used Fackrell in their second string.

“He’s done a nice job of improving every week,” Capers said earlier this week. “You saw his pass rush (against Detroit) when he had the sack. He’s one of those guys, he’s a young guy that applies himself. He’s gotten more opportunities each week.”

In a broader sense, it’s far from surprising that a team would expect its third-round pick to contribute during his rookie season. But within the context of the Packers, such a concept was far murkier at the time Fackrell was selected.

When the Packers opened training camp in late July, they did so with six returnees at outside linebacker,  if you count Clay Matthews. Thompson added a seventh option when he signed street free agent Lerentee McCray during the offseason.

Fackrell was batting eighth upon arrival.

“We’ve got it all,” said Winston Moss, associate head coach/linebackers, on Aug. 2. “We have guys that can rush with power, we’ve got guys that can rush with athleticism, we’ve got guys that can rush with speed. We have experienced guys, we have explosive guys, we have young guys, we have developing guys. There’s a lot of different ways that we can send rushers at the quarterback.”

The learning curve was steep. Despite his athleticism and experience as a four-year collegiate starter, Fackrell appeared lost through most of training camp. He relied exclusively on his speed rush because power wasn’t an option. (His 16 reps on the bench press was the second lowest among all linebackers at the scouting combine.) He went 0-12 in the competitive one-on-one pass rush drill, the worst mark on the team.

Instead, Fackrell’s early contributions came on special teams, where his profile was not unlike that of Jayrone Elliott, another outside linebacker and core member for coordinator Ron Zook. Both players were long, tall and could run. Their physical traits alone posed matchup problems.

Through three games, Fackrell has played a minimum of 18 special-teams snaps each week. He has played 59 of the possible 81 snaps for a 73 percent usage rate this season.

For reference, Chris Banjo played more special teams than anyone on the team last year. His usage rate during the regular season was 74 percent.

“You can't buy experience,” Zook said before the game against the Lions. “You've got to play and any time you're playing, you get better and better. Fackrell, the thing I really like, he's done some really, really good things. There's been some things that he's learned from; that's the good thing is you see him learn.”

As the weeks passed, Fackrell's pass rush improved. He always believed his speed compared favorably to players at this level, as long as he could figure out how to use it. He needed to find ways to combat the offensive tackles that simply pushed him wide. At practice he was often seen conversing with veteran Julius Peppers.

And all along, the coaches believed.

“I think Fackrell has some abilities that can help us,” Moss said before the game against the Vikings. “And so we will continue to find ways to insert him into the game that allows him to utilize his skill set. That can fluctuate from game to game, and when and if that opportunity presents itself, I’m totally confident with Fackrell playing. And not just putting him into the game and seeing what’s going on. I think he brings something to the table.

“Very, very smart kid. He knows our scheme. I’m as comfortable with his knowledge and confidence with our scheme as with any of the cats I’ve been around for a while."

Fackrell made his first tackle on special teams against the Jaguars. He made his first tackle from scrimmage the following week on a 5-yard carry by running back Adrian Peterson. (It was, in fact, the play in which Peterson tore his meniscus.)

And then Fackrell made his first sack against the Lions. He shimmied his shoulders at the line of scrimmage and then beat left tackle Taylor Decker with an outside move to bring down quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Decker, who played at Ohio State, was a first-round pick earlier this year.

“Practice is practice, but obviously the game is what really matters,” Fackrell said last week. “I think that I’ve shown that I can be productive enough to win rushes.”

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