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Packers nose tackle Kenny Clark fighting the frustration of persistent double teams

GREEN BAY - When Green Bay Packers nose tackle Kenny Clark was out with a groin injury early in the season, outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith received the bulk of attention from opposing offensive lines.

Smith was double-teamed a lot and his sack numbers suffered as a result.

But now that Clark is back and close to being himself, the double teams have shifted back to the Packers’ top defensive lineman.

While Smith’s numbers have climbed – he has five sacks in his last five games – Clark has nine tackles, no sacks and no quarterback hits in the four games since he has returned from his injury.

The last two weeks, the Minnesota Vikings and San Francisco 49ers made sure that Clark was taken away as often as possible. Clark received a four-year, $70 million contract in August, but most teams already knew he was one of the toughest nose tackles to defend against in the NFL.

Packers defensive tackle Kenny Clark blows up a play against the Texans.

If there was any sliver of hope Clark would slip under the radar, it’s gone now.

“I told him, ‘Listen, you’re a victim of your own success at times that you’re not sneaking up on anybody anymore after you get a new contract and the playoff run we made last year,’” defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said. “’You weren’t a well-kept secret anymore,’ that this was a guy that teams knew.

“When they watched the film, they understand like, ‘Hey listen. Especially in the run game, we got to get two hats on him or he’s going to create some issues.’”

In the Vikings game, Clark was doubled about 30% of the time and the occasions in which he wasn’t, he often stood his man up or pushed him back a yard or two. Most of running back Dalvin Cook’s big runs came when Clark was doubled or when he was on the other side of the field.

In the San Francisco game, the 49ers made sure he wasn’t coming up the middle when quarterback Nick Mullens dropped back. He was doubled approximately 40% of the time, including the play in which outside linebacker Preston Smith beat the left tackle and forced a bad ball that safety Raven Greene intercepted.

“I’ve been facing a little bit more and it’s been something I’ve been trying to talk to the coaches about,” Clark said. “So, yeah, it’s been a frustrating part for me this season. I’m not getting double-teamed every play but a lot of the (time) I am getting double-teamed, so I just have to figure out different ways to defeat blocks and all that kind of stuff.”

Pettine moves Clark around some, using him as a three- and five-technique, but often that’s not to avoid double teams. It’s just part of the scheme he’s using and calls for Clark to play a certain way.

As bad as the run defense has been, anybody who has watched recent games closely can see Clark almost always holds the point or makes penetration when he’s blocked one-on-one. There have been times that the double teams have wiped him out, so he’ll have to make sure he’s not trying to do something that will compromise the scheme.

“The thing he doesn’t want to do, and we talked about it, and it’s not in his personality anyways, is to try and do too much and come out of structure and try to make plays that aren’t there and it ends up affecting his original responsibility,” Pettine said. “Kenny’s a prideful guy and he’ll be fine.

“I just know that because he cares so much that there definitely is that sense of frustration there.”

Packers ‘play fast’ by taking their time

The Packers enter Sunday with the league’s No. 3 scoring offense and No. 7 overall offense, and since the start of training camp coaches and players have said they are able to “play faster” in year two of head coach Matt LaFleur’s system.

But what does it mean?

“It's by the play,” LaFleur said. “As coaches, we see it. You can tell when guys are measured, whether it's somebody running a route or maybe a ball carrier pressed in the hole or one of our offensive linemen coming off the ball, or quarterback when he's going through his progression, where maybe he double-clutches something instead of letting it rip. You can definitely see it. Linebackers, when they're closing in to make a tackle, do they hesitate? Or do they run through that tackle? So you can see it at every position, and I think just the more comfortable you are in regards to know what to do, that allows you to go out there and play faster.”

To illustrate how “playing faster” is more of a feel thing for the Packers, the analytics website Football Outsiders has the Packers as the slowest team in the NFL on a per-play basis, using 30.59 seconds per play. It’s more than a second slower than No. 31 Miami at 29.33 seconds per play. (Per the site, it is calculated simply by the number of plays into time of possession for each drive and the “intent is to describe pace as dictated by each team's game plan or style of play, not pace that is situation-induced.”)

The fastest team per play is Dallas at 22.54 seconds.

Time per play has little correlation with having a top-10 offense or a winning record, but it shows the Packers are efficient and consistent with how they operate. They take 31.2 seconds per play when up by a touchdown or more and 28.8 seconds when trailing by a touchdown or more.

“It’s just that communication,” offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. “Just the play call coming in, understanding the play call, Aaron (Rodgers) getting the play call to those guys. Just the whole process speeding up. Because the more you can get up to the line, and let Aaron have some time to adjust things or see things, it’s going to make us more efficient also. It’s just like a whole collaborative deal there with everybody understanding everything.”

Bakhtiari trending up

Ever since Tampa Bay defensive lineman William Gholston fell on him Oct. 18, Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari has been recovering from a chest injury and missed the games against Houston, Minnesota and San Francisco. But Wednesday, Bakhtiari was upgraded to a full participant in practice, though LaFleur noted it was not a padded session.

“But you know it looks like he’s trending in the right direction,” LaFleur said before Thursday’s practice. “It definitely was nice to see him back out there though.”

Bakhtiari practiced in pads fully Thursday.

“I think a lot of it is just going to be how he feels,” LaFleur said. “Anytime you’re dealing with the injury that he’s dealing with it’s never comfortable. Again, it comes down to his ability to go out there and function and make sure that he’s able to protect himself and not get any worse.”

Cornerback Jaire Alexander (concussion), tight end Marcedes Lewis (knee) and receiver Darrius Shepherd (shoulder) did not participate in practice for the second straight day. Fullback John Lovett (knee) and tight end Robert Tonyan (ankle) were downgraded to limited while tackle Rick Wagner (knee) practiced on a limited basis. Linebacker Za’Darius Smith remained out following the birth of his child.

Clock ticking on Lazard, Kirksey

Starting middle linebacker Christian Kirksey and Allen Lazard are moving through another week of practice, but they do not have to be taken off injured reserve for Sunday’s game if they are not medically cleared.

The two players began practicing Oct. 28, and the team has 21 days to move them to the active roster. That means the deadline to activate them is next week.

“As soon as they’re ready to go, they’ll be out there on the field,” LaFleur said Thursday.

With AJ Dillon and Krys Barnes on the reserve/COVID-19 list, the Packers have 51 players on the active roster. So, if those two remain on that list and Lazard and/or Kirksey are deemed able to play against Jacksonville, the team will not have to make any roster moves to fit them in. If all four players are able to be activated, the team will have to make some corresponding roster moves.