GREEN BAY - Buried somewhere in the middle of a mass of bodies covered in dirt, sweat and remnants of the chalk lines that cover his workplace, Green Bay Packers nose tackle Kenny Clark isn’t that hard to miss.
The white tape wrapped around his hands and wrists sometimes blend in with the white jerseys of his opponents, but only for a second or two. Clark’s hands whip around like he’s a Hibachi chef, striking up or down or across the arms of the offensive lineman trying to clamp onto his jersey or shoulder pads.
Playing one of the least noticeable positions on the football field, Clark is drawing notice for a couple of reasons.
First and foremost, he’s playing the best football of his three-year career and arguably is the top defender in coordinator Mike Pettine’s defense. He ranks fifth on the team in tackles (22), second in quarterback pressures (four), first in fumble recoveries (two) and tied for first in forced fumbles (one).
Secondly, he’s playing more snaps than any other defensive lineman on the team. In fact, it’s not even close. Clark has played 80.9 percent of the defensive snaps, which blows away everyone else. The next highest participant, Mike Daniels, has played 61.8 percent.
If you haven’t noticed Clark on the field, it’s because you’re not paying attention.
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“Honestly, I wasn’t expecting it, but you prepare for anything in the offseason,” said Clark, who turns 23 Thursday. “I mean in the offseason, I work hard. I do what I do. Throughout camp and stuff, I made sure I was in shape.”
Clark’s presence became that much more important when defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson suffered a broken ankle against Washington and was lost for the season. Wilkerson played 64 percent of the snaps in the first two games and was able to eat up some of the blockers Clark is now commanding.
But even then, Clark was the lone true nose tackle on the team – and continues to be – which means his presence on the field isn’t just an asset to the defense, it’s a necessity.
Against Buffalo on Sunday, Clark played 47 of the 58 total snaps and the only reason that wasn’t higher was because the Packers threw a shutout and Clark didn’t have to play on the final series. Even with a capable Dean Lowry and a young Montravius Adams, Pettine felt he couldn’t take Clark off the field.
“Kenny has taken a lot of the reps,” Lowry said. “Mike is a nose, but that’s a secondary position. Montravius and I are trying nose just in case Kenny does come out of the game. We want to make sure there’s no drop-off, (us) not knowing the defense.
“Kenny is our nose, but we have to make sure we have guys who can go in there and play that position.”
General manager Brian Gutekunst tried to add another nose tackle last week, but his attempt to sign former Packers lineman Brian Price failed. Price accepted a raise and stuck on Cleveland’s practice squad rather than join the Packers’ 53-man roster.
The Packers also worked out veteran Quinton Dial, who played as a backup last season, but so far they have not signed him.
When asked Wednesday if he was OK with the distribution of snaps among the four defensive linemen on the roster, coach Mike McCarthy said yes. At this point, it doesn’t appear the Packers are in a hurry to replace Wilkerson, who was placed on injured reserve last week.
“Well, we’ll see,” McCarthy said. “That’s really what the week of practice gets into. But I have no personnel decisions to announce today.”
Coming of a solid second season, Clark’s goal was to play more in the nickel and dime defenses, where only two defensive linemen are used. In those packages, Clark gets to pass rush, which is something he wasn’t asked to do a lot last year.
He has improved dramatically as a pass rusher and as the Buffalo game showed, Pettine wants him on the field every opportunity he can get.
“I’ve been playing a lot of third down lately,” Clark said. “I think I’m improving in that and getting some good pressure and stuff like that. It definitely was what I wanted and was a goal of mine personally, was to try to play more on third down and try to impact the game in different ways.
“As far as the start of the season, I think I’ve been doing a good job of that, (causing) a lot of pressures and capitalizing with sacks.”
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A big improvement for Clark has been his hand work. He’s quick off the ball and has great lower-body strength, but often it isn’t just about getting up the field as quickly as possible; it’s about beating a block – or two – you can’t avoid.
Clark said improving his hand work and other technical parts of the game have allowed him to play freer than in the past. Last year, he found himself trying to do everything perfectly instead of just letting it rip.
After two-plus years, the fundamentals of playing defensive line are ingrained in him and so he can trust he’s going to do things right without thinking about it too much.
“I figured more stuff out by myself in preseason,” Clark said. “I’m like just cutting it loose and just not think about anything. I think that’s what I’ve been doing probably since the Steelers in the preseason.
“Everything is second nature as far as my technique. If I get a run toward my side or if I have to play the technique, I’ll play the technique just off memory. I’m comfortable now, I’m not worried about messing up. I’m trying to make the plays that come to me.”
It would help the defensive line immensely if Adams were to contribute more than he has. But Pettine’s confidence in him must not be high because he played just five snaps against the Jets. That means all the rest of the snaps went to Clark, Daniels and Lowry.
Pettine adjusted by playing two linemen all but just a handful of snaps. He even went to a dime defense where he played five linebackers and no defensive linemen.
That’s not going to be sustainable as the season goes on. If the Detroit Lions are paying attention, they might want to think about using a lot of double-tight end sets and forcing the Packers to play three down linemen.
It would stress the defense, although Clark said he’s handling the workload fairly well. The Packers are going to have to make sure they don’t wear him before the season is half over.
“I just get a workout in and get in the cold tub and stuff,” Clark said. “I do a couple of massages through the week. By the time Wednesday comes back around, I’m all right. I don’t really have any stuff bothering me. Most of it is soreness.
“The coaches do a good job helping us out in practice, keeping things cool at practice. I feel fresh in the game.”