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GREEN BAY – Even before the Green Bay Packers' run defense began its nose dive in the NFL rankings, the team was exploring the idea of increasing the snaps of a draft pick from whom they started seeing signs of life.
Since he arrived as a fifth-round pick from Texas A&M in April, defensive lineman Kingsley Keke was considered a pass-rushing prospect who at some point could help man one of the two inside spots in the nickel and dime rush packages.
But when the pads came on in training camp, he played the run better than anyone expected.
Now, the former nose tackle, who has played between 285-290 pounds since converting to end in college, is in line for increased playing time, starting with a game Sunday back in his home state of Texas against the Dallas Cowboys.
“The thing that shocked me a little was how well he played the run in some of the preseason games and things like that,” defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery said. “Even two weeks ago, when he came in there for the first time, he did some really good things.
“It let me know that he was ready. So, I’m pleased with what he's doing and look forward to seeing him out there again.”
It’s unreasonable to think that Keke will be the guy who alone firms up the soft spot in coordinator Mike Pettine’s defense, but with third-year pro Montravius Adams nursing a shoulder injury and nose tackle Kenny Clark and end Dean Lowry playing an exceptional amount of snaps, he’s an option Montgomery must explore.
The Packers rank 26th in rushing yards allowed per game (142.2) and 29th in yards per carry (5.0). They’re preparing to face a Cowboys team that ranks fifth in rushing yards per game (145.5) and tied for eighth in yards per carry (4.9).
Though the 6-3, 286-pound Keke will have to continue strengthening his lower body to be an every-down player, his long arms and big frame help him stay disconnected from blockers and get moving upfield.
When they drafted him, the Packers felt he had the versatility to play wide in a 3-4 or 4-3 defense and inside on passing downs. They just didn’t talk much about his ability to play the run.
“I know I have that in me,” Keke said. “I played in the SEC when I was at A & M. When I used to be a bigger guy that was my area as far as playing where I did, and I didn’t have any issues.
“I came in more a nose tackle than a D-tackle. I went from a 3-technique to a one-technique my freshman year. Then my senior year I moved to end. I dropped about 25 pounds to 290.”
In his first action of the season, Keke logged 12 snaps against the Denver Broncos in Week 3. He finished with just one assisted tackle, but Montgomery thought he was solid at holding his ground and getting off blocks.
Even last week against a Philadelphia offense that rushed 33 times for 176 yards and two touchdowns, Keke played adequately in seven snaps. On the Eagles’ longest run, a 30-yard “wham” play in which end Lowry got sideswiped by a tight end, Keke broke through on the back side and nearly made the play.
The possible return of Adams this week after a two-week absence will help alleviate some of the workload on Clark and Lowry, but if Pettine intends to play base fronts against the Cowboys, he’ll need more help. Tyler Lancaster has played 41.7% of the snaps but has no sacks, one pressure and a half tackle for loss.
Clark (83.5% of the snaps) and Lowry (69.2%) both were outplayed by the Eagles’ offensive line, which could be a sign of them wearing down. Their job is even more difficult this week against the Cowboys’ massive offensive line.
“He definitely can help us,” Clark said of Keke. “Coach has been consistently trying to get him in there when he can. It’s just one of those things, we have to find our rhythm and find a rhythm when to get those guys in and get them some snaps.
“He can put some good tape on. We played the Broncos game, he had some really good plays. Even this game, he looked good. He looked stout in there.”
Montgomery said Keke didn’t get down after not playing in the first two games and has earned the right to play more snaps with his performance in practice and the last two games. He’ll have to continue to earn Montgomery’s trust, but at this point he’s positioned to carve out a nice role.
“I see those things going up each week, the more and more comfortable he gets with the system.” Montgomery said of Keke’s snaps. “I think he understands our philosophy and what we're trying to get accomplished. I think he'll be a guy that adds value to what we're doing.”