Like last season, and multiple other recent seasons under Dom Capers, the Packers’ defense has had a rough time of it in 2017. A year after finishing No. 22 in total defense, Green Bay enters the final week of this season in that same spot, 11th-worst in the NFL, allowing 348.4 yards per game. With Aaron Rodgers – and his otherworldly ability to overcompensate for the team’s weaknesses – sidelined for more than half of the season, the Packers’ defensive deficiencies became much more apparent.
Head coach Mike McCarthy has said the organization has to "look at everything" and "be honest about the patterns of negativity and positivity," while fans and media have complained about familiar defensive struggles and speculated that this season could be Capers’ last. Surely, when this disappointing campaign has concluded after Sunday’s finale in Detroit – without a playoff appearance for the first time since 2008 – difficult decisions will be made and changes will come.
There have been some bright spots, however, and two second-year players, in particular, established themselves as foundational pieces of the defense – no matter what schematic form it takes going forward. Defensive tackle Kenny Clark and inside linebacker Blake Martinez, a pair of 2016 draft picks, both took major steps forward in their sophomore seasons, providing consistent, playmaking talent in the middle of a unit that often seemed to be falling apart around them.
Clark, a first-round selection out of UCLA who came along slowly in his rookie year, has suddenly emerged as a disruptive force over the past month. He registered two sacks in Saturday night’s shutout loss to the Vikings, giving him 4.5 in the last four games. Clark has a team-high two forced fumbles and leads Green Bay’s defensive linemen in tackles (53) and snaps (661), through Week 16.
Clark’s strength, athleticism and endurance has allowed him to stay on the field more than any other Packers player at his position; at 6-foot-3, 317 pounds, his powerful, knifing penetration into opponents’ backfields has enabled teammates – sometimes – to make plays.
Clark has played all but one game in 2017, missing the Nov. 26 contest at Pittsburgh after suffering an ankle injury against Baltimore. Since returning against the Buccaneers on Dec. 3, Clark, who hadn’t had a sack in his first 29 NFL games, has recorded 4.5 over the last four weeks.
"Kenny came out of the blocks playing good football this year, probably building off how he finished last year," McCarthy said. "He just had the setback there against Baltimore, took him a game or two to get back to playing at the level he played at (Saturday) night. I think Kenny Clark is having an outstanding year."
Behind Clark, and helped by the blocks he eats up, is Martinez, the 2016 fourth-rounder from Stanford whom Clay Matthews calls "Mr. Consistent" for his steadiness and sure tackling. Like Clark, Martinez is a smart player with good speed, able to diagnose plays intuitively and pursue runners across the field. The 6-2, 237-pound linebacker leads the league in tackles, with 138, and has a team-high nine tackles for loss, while playing 92 percent of Green Bay’s defensive snaps without missing a game.
"I think Blake is having a heck of a year," McCarthy said earlier this month. "You always talk about the leap from Year 1 to 2, and that's what you're looking for – that's exactly how you want to see guys come back and take advantage of your opportunities."
After the Vikings game on Saturday night, McCarthy had similar praise for Clark: "We talk about the second-year jump, and that’s a great example of it. Yes, I think Kenny is having a heck of a year."
Clark and Martinez have been impressive not only for their playmaking, which has been uncommon this year on the Packers defense, but also for their dependability and energy.
"That's just me," Clark said. "If I'm going to go out and play a football game, I'm going to play it hard. That's why they drafted me – my motor, my style of play, how I play."
Under Capers, Green Bay plays a base 3-4 defense, though it more often lines up in nickel coverage. If the Packers were to part ways with Capers after the season, it’s possible their next defensive coordinator would change the scheme. Clark and Martinez are both young, talented and versatile enough to lean a different position or play a new role – in a base 4-3, Clark could stay inside as one of two defensive tackles, while Martinez would seem to make an excellent weak-side linebacker, with Clay Matthews perhaps shifting to the middle.
Regardless whether the Packers make major changes defensively in the offseason, Clark and Martinez have proven they will be important players for this team for years to come.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.