Packers’ 2019 review: Defense carries load

By Chris Havel
Special to Event USA

Mike Pettine’s unit led Packers to quick start, strong finish in impressive season

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Mike Pettine has had an interesting two seasons as the Packers’ defensive coordinator.

After a strong 2018 season, his first in Green Bay, Pettine was among the most attractive coaches to be retained here. At one point, some speculated that head coach Matt LaFleur was hired – at least in part – on the promise that he would keep Pettine.

That proved to be an overstatement. What couldn’t be overstated was the defense’s ability to carry the team, especially early in the season when LaFleur’s offense was still finding its way.

Pettine’s unit – led by Kenny Clark, the Smith Brothers, Blake Martinez and a much-improved secondary – was almost always consistent and occasionally dominant.

The Packers were one of five teams in 2019 that allowed fewer than 20 points per game while posting 40-plus sacks and 25-plus takeaways. San Francisco, Minnesota, New England and Pittsburgh were the others.

The Packers’ defense also ranked No. 1 in the NFC and sixth in the league in opponent passer rating at 81.1. It marked a 19.8-point improvement and was the largest one-year gain since a 55.4 rating in 1996 following an 80.8 rating in 1995.

Perhaps Pettine’s crowning achievement was completely shutting down the Vikings’ offense in Week 16, when it held Minnesota and Kirk Cousins to just seven first downs. That was the fewest first downs by any Vikings offense at home since 1971.

Most important, it helped the Packers wrap up the NFC North title.

Following a difficult 37-20 loss at San Francisco in the NFC Championship, some speculated that Pettine’s job could be in jeopardy. LaFleur quickly worked to end that talk by meeting with and retaining his defensive coordinator.

It was a no-brainer.

With a year together, and players such as Rashan Gary and Darnell Savage continuing to grow, Pettine’s defense may be even more dominant this season.

Here is a look at the Packers’ defense under Pettine in his second season. Next week I’ll take a big-picture look at the offseason ahead.

** Defensive Line
97 Kenny Clark, 4th Year, UCLA

Clark, the backbone of the Packers’ defense, started all 16 games and ranked No. 2 on the team with a career-high 89 tackles (52 solo). He also racked up six sacks, which tied his career high, as well as a forced fumble, 11 tackles for loss, 28 QB hits and 32 QB pressures.

In the playoffs, Clark started both games and registered five tackles and a sack. After the season, Clark earned what should be the first of many trips to the Pro Bowl and will undoubtedly become one of the NFL’s highest-paid at his position.

** Defensive Line
94 Dean Lowry, 4th Year, Northwestern

Lowry has played in 63 of a possible 64 games as a pro with 35 starts since entering the league in 2016.

He started all 16 games and notched a career-high 62 tackles (33 solo), five tackles for loss, an interception, two passes defended, a fumble recovery, nine QB hits and 11 QB pressures.

Lowry started both playoff games and had five tackles (three solo).

** Defensive Line
95 Tyler Lancaster, 2nd Year, Northwestern

Lancaster, in just two seasons, has gone from practice squad rookie to being part of the Packers’ defensive line rotation.

He played in all 16 games with 10 starts and posted 36 tackles (19 solo), 1 ½ sacks, four tackles for loss, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, a QB hit and three QB pressures. He started both playoff games and racked up six tackles (four solo).

Lancaster’s role should expand this season.

** Defensive Line
90 Montravius Adams, 3rd Year, Auburn

Adams played in 14 games with two starts. He had 19 tackles (14 solo), a fumble recovery, three passes defended, two QB hits and a QB pressure.

He played in both playoff games and racked up a QB hit. His future in Green Bay is much dependent upon the upcoming season. Adams flashes, raises expectations and then ultimately disappoints. If that pattern doesn’t change this will be his final season here.

** Defensive Line
96 Kingsley Keke, DL, Rookie, Texas A&M

Keke will have a terrific chance to work into the defensive line rotation this season. He played in 14 games as a rookie with two healthy scratches. He had 11 tackles (seven solo) with a QB pressure. He played in both playoff games and posted three tackles and one tackle for loss.

I would expect Keke’s role to expand, most likely at Adams’ expense.

** Outside Linebacker
55 Za’Darius Smith, 5th Year, Kentucky

Za’Darius was a beast in 2019. He earned every penny he was paid in free agency by starting 16 games and posting a career-best 78 tackles (44 solo), a career-high and team-best 13 ½ sacks, a team-high 51 QB hits and another 65 QB pressures.

Za’Darius finished sixth in the NFL in sacks, and his 13 ½ sacks ranked fifth-best in Packers’ history.

He was named to his first Pro Bowl after a season in which he had four games with double-digit sack totals. He was the first Packer to have four two-plus sack games since Aaron Kampman in 2006.

Za’Darius joined teammate Preston Smith to be the NFL’s only 12-plus sack duo last season. He added eight tackles and two sacks in the playoffs.

** Outside linebacker
91 Preston Smith, 5th Year, Mississippi State

Smith became the only NFL player to register 25-plus sacks (36.5), five-plus interceptions (five) and five-plus forced fumbles (five) since 2015. He also has played in all 80 games since entering the league.

Preston started all 16 games and racked up a career-high 75 tackles (42 solo), a career-best 12 sacks, an interception, a forced fumble and two passes defended. He also had 29 QB hits and 43 QB pressures. Preston also was tied for second in the NFL with seven third-down sacks.

He started both playoff games and had six tackles and two sacks.

Look for Za’Darius and Preston – the Smith Brothers – to continue to wreak havoc throughout the league in 2020.

** Outside linebacker
51 Kyler Fackrell, 4th Year, Utah State

Fackrell was solid while coming off his finest season as a pro in 2018, when he set career highs in starts (seven), sacks (a team-high 10 ½), tackles (52) and solo tackles (37). He also tied for the team lead in tackles for loss with 13.

Last season, Fackrell played in all 16 games and posted 33 tackles (13 solo), one sack, three tackles for loss, 21 QB hits and 32 QB pressures. He also had four tackles on special teams.

Fackrell played in both playoff games and had two tackles and a sack.

** Outside Linebacker
52 Rashan Gary, Rookie, Michigan

The Packers’ 12th pick in the 2019 NFL draft worked his way into the rotation as a situational pass rusher behind Preston and Za’Darius Smith. Their presence allowed Gary to grow at his own pace without the pressure typically associated with a first-round pick.

Gary played in all 16 games and had 30 tackles (14 solo), two sacks, three tackles for loss, a fumble recovery, seven QB hits and 19 QB pressures, which was fifth on the team.

Gary also appeared in both playoff games and made two tackles and a QB pressure. Gary’s role most assuredly will expand this season. Look for the Packers to continue moving Za’Darius Smith along the line, with Gary added to the mix to bring the heat with Preston Smith.

** Inside Linebacker
50 Blake Martinez, 4th Year, Stanford

The Packers’ durable tackling machine started 16 games and led the team with 203 tackles (127 solo) while setting the franchise mark for tackles previously held by Nick Barnett (194 in 2005).

Martinez became just the second player in team history to lead the Packers in tackles three straight seasons. Barnett is the other.

The Stanford grad also had three sacks, six tackles for loss, a forced fumble, an interception, three passes defended, five QB pressures and a QB hit.

Martinez started both playoff games and had 20 tackles (16 solo).

I expect Martinez will depart in free agency, where he will be paid handsomely. He has earned Packers fans’ respect and congratulations.

** Inside Linebacker
42 Oren Burks, 2nd Year, Vanderbilt

Burks, who has battled injuries throughout his brief NFL career, played in 14 games with four starts as a rookie in 2018. He had 16 tackles (13 solo) and ranked second in special teams tackles with 10.

Burks played in 12 games last season and racked up eight tackles (four solo). He also tied for the team lead with nine special teams tackles. He played in both postseason games and assisted on three tackles.

** Cornerback
23 Jaire Alexander, 2nd Year, Louisville

Alexander had a solid second season after a strong rookie year. He started all 16 games and recorded 63 tackles (41 solo), two interceptions, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a team-high 23 passes defended.

The Pro Bowl alternate started both playoff games and registered 12 tackles (10 solo) and a pass defended.

Alexander is the Packers’ shutdown cornerback during the foreseeable future.

** Cornerback
20 Kevin King, 3rd Year, Washington

King played in 15 games with 14 starts and a career-high 59 tackles (45 solo), a sack, a team-best and career-best five interceptions. He also had a career-high 18 passes defended – second on the team – and tied for fourth in the NFL in interceptions.

King also started both playoff games and had five tackles and a team-high two passes defended.

He is the bookend to Alexander and if things go as planned they should develop into an upper-echelon NFL cornerback tandem.

** Cornerback
38 Tramon Williams, 13th Year, Louisiana Tech

Williams was a guiding veteran force in 2019. His 38 career interceptions (including postseason) is second in the NFL among active players behind Richard Sherman (39).

Williams, one of only two players with at least one interception from 2007-2017 (Terence Newman is the other), played in 16 games with seven starts in 2019.

He finished with 41 tackles (18 solo), a tackle for loss, two interceptions, a forced fumble and a team-high two fumble recoveries. He also defended 11 passes, which ranked third on the team.

** Safety
26 Darnell Savage, Rookie, Maryland

Savage, the Packers’ second of two first-round picks in 2019, started all 14 games he appeared in while recording 61 tackles (41 solo), a tackle for loss, two interceptions, a team-high two forced fumbles, seven passes defended, a QB hit and two QB pressures.

Savage, who has the potential to be a Pro Bowl-caliber safety, started both playoff games and posted 11 tackles (eight solo).

Savage and Amos comprise a formidable safety duo.

** Safety
31 Adrian Amos, 5th Year, Penn State

Amos, who started all 16 games for Chicago’s top-ranked defense in 2018, proved to be a steadying influence in Green Bay in 2019. He started all 18 games for the Packers and was the No. 3 tackler with 87 (64 solo). He also had seven tackles for loss, a sack, eight passes defended and two interceptions.

Amos was the Packers’ only defensive player to play on every snap.

He had six tackles and a pass defended in the postseason and will remain the glue at the back end of the Packers’ defense.

** Safety
24 Raven Greene, 2nd Year, James Madison

Greene played in two games with one start before an ankle injury landed him on injured reserve. The Packers liked him so much they brought him back off IR to be active for the playoffs.

I would expect Greene to compete for a role this season.

** Punter
6 JK Scott, 2nd Year, Alabama

Scott had a so-so second season. He posted a 44-yard gross average and a 39.9-yard net average on 77 punts with 29 inside the 20-yard line (tied for ninth in the league). His 29 punts inside the 20 were the most by a Packers’ punter since Tim Masthay had 30 in 2012.

** Long Snapper
43 Hunter Bradley, LS, 2nd Year, Mississippi State

Bradley, as a long snapper, gives special teams coach Shawn Mennenga what he covets most in that position: Zero drama. Bradley handled the snapping duties in every game the past two seasons.

Bradley has one tackle each of the past two seasons, a reflection of how rules changes have impacted special teams. In the not-so-distant past, one of the prerequisites for a long snapper was the speed and ability to get downfield and make tackles.

Now it’s all about putting the snap on the money.

** Return Specialist
32 Tyler Ervin, 4th Year, San Jose State

The Packers claimed Ervin off waivers from Jacksonville on Dec. 3. In a short time, Ervin managed to hold down the return duties and showcase his ability as a situational running back on offense.

Ervin energized a dormant return game almost immediately by returning 11 punts for 106 yards, a 9.6 average. The Packers were averaging negative yards in punt returns before Ervin’s signing.

He also returned six kickoffs for 160 yards (a 26.7 average) and had one reception for 6 yards and one carry for 10 yards.

Ervin played in both playoff games and had two carries for 25 yards, one catch for 7 yards, one punt return for 6 yards and three kick returns for 41 yards.

Ervin should be back in 2020 to solidify the return game and also provide another weapon out of the backfield on offense.