The Green Bay Packers spent first- and fourth-round draft picks on the defensive line this year, but coming out of their first preseason game they still have to be concerned about stopping the run early in the season.
Fourth-rounder Dean Lowry was a surprise starter Friday night against Cleveland and showed he has a ways to go to become an effective player in a real game. Kenny Clark, the Packers’ first-round pick, fared a little better but didn’t play as well as he had in training-camp practices.
There’s still time in camp for players, especially young ones, to improve, so nothing is settled after one preseason game. But it leaves open the possibility that the Packers either will have to find a run-plugging defensive lineman on waivers during training camp, or move a defensive lineman from a more natural position to the five-technique end until Mike Pennel returns from his four-game drug suspension to start the regular season.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers gave Lowry first look at Pennel’s position, and Lowry looked like a rookie. He has most of the tangibles you look for at the five-technique — good length (6-feet-5 ¾) and size (296 pounds) — but he got pushed around in the run game. He’s tall and showed a tendency to peek over blockers to see what was going on behind them. But in doing that, he lost leverage, and for NFL offensive linemen that made him easier to block.
As a pass rusher, Lowry didn’t show much besides a bull rush.
Clark, on the other hand, had one really nice play in the second quarter when on a third-and-23 he split a combination block by backup Browns linemen Austin Pasztor and Alvin Bailey and dropped running back Terrell Watson for a meaningless (four-yard) gain. That was impressive.
But for the most part in his 19 snaps, Clark’s reactions were a beat late. His foot quickness looked fine, his hands were OK (though not as good as they’d looked in some camp practices), but his reading and reacting to blocks weren’t fast enough.
Both rookies can improve in as short a time as the remaining three preseason games. Clark, especially, has the feet, power and motor you’re looking for. But the Packers need them to grow in a hurry, because their season opens with a couple of tough matchups for the defensive line.
The Packers’ opener will be in the stifling Florida summer heat Sept. 11 at Jacksonville. That will test the Packers’ depth on the defensive line, and playing run defense will be especially important in the second half if that game is close. Then in Week 2 the Packers face the best running back in the NFL, the Minnesota Vikings’ Adrian Peterson. That’s the ultimate test for a run defense.
Lowry will have to make a big jump to warrant playing regularly in the base 3-4 defense in those games. The better bet might be that Capers has to move someone else to the five-technique defensive end, like he did in previous years with natural nose tackles Ryan Pickett and later B.J. Raji.
So maybe Capers will move Letroy Guion from the nose to the five, and play Clark at nose tackle. That’s not ideal, but if Lowry isn’t ready there might not be a lot of options. Undrafted rookie Tyler Kuder (6-3, 308) is listed as the third-string five-technique, but he doesn’t appear to have the lateral speed to play there. He’s a big guy who looks like he can go forward and push a rock, so he could be good on short-yardage downs. But the movement skills aren’t there to line up over a tackle.
The Packers' primary defense is their nickel, which uses only two defensive linemen, so this isn’t an every-down issue. Nick Perry (265 pounds) and Datone Jones (275 pounds) are big for outside linebackers, and either should be decent against the run opposite Clay Matthews
But there will be times when Capers needs to line up with three true defensive linemen to occupy blockers and stop the run, especially against Peterson. And for now there’s a question of whether the Packers have the personnel for that while Pennel is suspended.
It all depends on what happens with Lowry and Clark over the final three weeks of the preseason.
Falling in line
Several offensive linemen have separated themselves from the pack of backups: JC Tretter, Jason Spriggs, Lane Taylor and Don Barclay.
The guy to start with is Tretter, who has shown why he was the Packers’ projected starting center in 2014 until a knee injury in the third preseason game opened the way for Corey Linsley. Linsley played so well he never gave back the job. But he’s still on PUP with a hamstring injury, and if he stays out too long he just might have the same happen to him.
Linsley is the stronger of the two, but Tretter is quick off the ball and good at helping on combo blocks and then peeling off to get a piece of a linebacker. He played well in his 13 snaps Friday night.
Spriggs, a second-round pick this year, clearly is the top backup for both tackles, which was a hole in the roster last year.
Taylor is a little like Evan Smith (formerly Dietrich-Smith), who was with the Packers in 2009 and from 2011-13. He hung around and hung around until he eventually got his chance, and then he became a starter. The same eventually could happen for Taylor.
And Barclay looks more confident in his post-surgical knee than he was last season. He replaced Tretter and played the rest of the game (73 snaps) at center, and his ability to fill in anywhere on the line in a pinch will make him hard to cut. Barclay never has been especially athletic, but he’s moving his feet better now that he’s nearly two years removed from surgery.
» Justin Perillo is the clear front-runner for the No. 3 tight end job. He’s probably the team’s best blocker at his position, though he’s drawn more notice in camp as a receiver. He looks like a guy plucked off the street and isn’t going to pick up much yardage after the catch, but he’s savvy enough to get open and is sure-handed. He also showed some sneaky athletic ability to go get the ball when he went over defensive back Rahim Moore Sr. on a nine-yard catch in the second quarter.
» Aaron Ripkowski’s youth (23) gives him more pop as a blocker than former fullback John Kuhn, but on a couple plays against the Browns, Ripkowski ran past a guy he should have blocked. Still, Ripkowski is way ahead of the other fullback in camp, undrafted rookie Alstevis Squirewell.
— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week during the season. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1