Despite setbacks, Kenny Clark's top goal remains within reach

GREEN BAY - After signing the richest contract for any nose tackle in NFL history during training camp, Kenny Clark's season became a nightmare.

A shortened camp meant it would be more challenging for players to get into football shape. Before Clark could, his early season was derailed with a torn groin before halftime in Week 1. It took Clark more than a month to return from the injury. When he did, it was as if Clark was starting over.

For three, four weeks, Clark didn't have the power in his legs. His endurance was shot.

"Took a minute," Clark said, "for my groin to get right and be able to drive my legs fast and all those things I like to do."

It showed on the field. Clark's first sack of the season wouldn't come until Nov. 22 at the Indianapolis Colts, a month after he returned. His only other sack came three weeks later at Detroit. It was a disappointing season by his standards.

Then the playoffs started.

Packers nose tackle Kenny Clark sacks Rams quarterback Jared Goff.

Clark's sack and a half last week in the NFC divisional round game against the Los Angeles Rams – on the same field where Aaron Donald was shut out – showed the Packers still have a disruptive force along the interior of their defense.

"It felt good to have a game like that," Clark said. "I felt like it was long overdue that I had a game like that. Honestly, this season for me, I really just had to just tune everything out and just focus on myself and focus on not what was going on around me. You know, just play my game, really. Just play my game and live with whatever happens."

Clark said he was short of accomplishing most of the goals he set after signing his four-year, $70 million contract extension in August. His top goal is still attainable, however.

If the Packers beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC championship game at Lambeau Field, they'll be in the Super Bowl for the first time in Clark's career.

Now healthy, Clark expects to have an impact on Sunday's game.

"That was the No. 1 goal that I wrote," Clark said. "So it is what it is, and I'm doing everything I can to make it to the Super Bowl and win it."

Tramon Williams returns

The Packers welcomed back a familiar face to practice Thursday: cornerback Tramon Williams

Williams came in for a visit Wednesday and officially signed with the team Thursday. The 14-year NFL veteran, who spent 10 seasons with the Packers, most recently played six games with the Baltimore Ravens. The team released Williams after their divisional-round loss to the Buffalo Bills.

Because Williams was up-to-date in COVID-19 testing with the Ravens, he was able to start practicing immediately with the Packers.

“It's great to have him back in the building,” head coach Matt LaFleur said. “Such a great, veteran leader. Obviously he's played a lot of ball. It's great to have him in a Green Bay Packer uniform, that's for sure. We'll take it through the week and we'll see where it goes.”

Williams returns to the team not only with experience playing just about every position in the secondary – he’s also been used as a punt return specialist as recently as the 2018 season. Special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga said he spent time with Williams after practice Thursday fielding punts.

“He's always an option for us,” Mennenga said. “We'll have those conversations depending on his status and things.

“He's always reliable and sure-handed and he's made plays with the ball in his hands.”

The Packers remain healthy and nearly everyone on the active 53-man roster participated in Thursday’s padded practice. Tight end Marcedes Lewis (knee) took his typical Thursday veteran day. Safety Will Redmond (knee) was downgraded from a full participant Wednesday to a limited participant.

On the Buccaneers’ side, wide receiver Antonio Brown (knee) and outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul (knee/not injury related) were the only two players who did not participate in Thursday’s practice. Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians told local media that Brown will be a game-time decision Sunday and that he doesn’t need to practice this week to be active against the Packers.

Marcedes Lewis feeling young and healthy

When the Packers signed tight end Marcedes Lewis to a one-year deal in 2018, he had only played in two postseasons in his 12-year career with the Jacksonville Jaguars (2007, 2017).

Now, three seasons with the Packers later, Lewis has doubled his postseason appearances in a quarter of the time. As the team’s second straight NFC championship game approaches, Lewis said he understands how precious the opportunity is to earn a ticket to the Super Bowl.

“This is the pinnacle,” Lewis said. “It would mean everything. Obviously this is what you get in the game for. This is why I started playing ball at 8 years old. You want to win championships and it's right there in front of us. I think the difference between last year and this year, I think as a whole, we all understand the task at hand and this game doesn't even matter if we don't get to the big game.”

After 15 seasons in the NFL running routes, catching passes and blocking defenders, Lewis said he doesn’t feel like he’s 36 years old. The veteran tight end credits his daily routine for his ability to maintain his “gritty” approach and contribute to the Packers in 2020 with 10 receptions for 107 yards and three touchdowns. That routine includes taking a veteran day on Thursdays away from the physical action on the practice field, which Lewis earned with the trust of his coaches.

A typical Thursday consists of Lewis doing extra recovery, prehab and rehab work. Additionally, Lewis spends more time on the playbook and works as an “assistant coach” during practice to instruct the other tight ends.

“It's been a really good experience for me because when I'm out there helping the younger tight ends, I'm actually doing double as far as the reps in my mind and going through it,” Lewis said. “Sometimes it's good to take a step back and watch it and so when I'm in the game, I've already went through that thousands of times and I'm able to perform at the level that I'm performing.”

At this point in his career, Lewis said he works his mind more than he works his body. His ability to lock in and pay attention to each detail of the offense earned him a leadership role. The mental reps that Lewis takes on a weekly basis and the years he’s put into perfecting his craft will allow him to rely on his technique come time for the NFC championship game.

“It's inevitable not to understand what the magnitude of the game is, but at the same time, (we have to) be able to compartmentalize and making sure you're getting your work done daily so that you trust your technique and you're able to perform,” Lewis said.