With the Green Bay Packers mired in a four-game losing streak, the time to develop the young players was put on hold. To save the season, coach Mike McCarthy turned to his veterans.
That meant first-round pick Kenny Clark, who had been averaging 25.7 snaps per game in his previous nine games, saw a big dip in his playing time. In the season-turning win at Philadelphia, Clark played 13 snaps. A week later in a snowstorm against Houston, Clark played only seven snaps.
“Going through this process, it’s such a long season,” Clark said. “In the beginning, there was a lot of stuff going right for me. Toward the middle, I kind of got stagnant and started playing a little bit less and tried to feel my way out. You’ve got to keep moving forward, especially during this long season. You’ve got to keep moving forward, and I think I did a good job of staying mentally tough and getting better every week and worrying about myself and worrying about helping this team win.”
Clark’s emerged from that stagnant state with solid play down the stretch. The Packers will need Clark at his best in Sunday’s NFC Divisional showdown at Dallas.
The Cowboys feature far and away the best rushing attack among the 12 playoff teams. Dallas has three Pro Bowlers on its indomitable offensive line (center Travis Frederick, guard Zack Martin and left tackle Tyron Smith), and they pave the way for the NFL’s rushing champion, Pro Bowl rookie Ezekiel Elliott.
Because of Dallas’ rushing power, the Packers figure to trot out their seldom-used base 3-4 defense. That means Clark (and fellow rookie Dean Lowry) will see a lot of playing time with veteran stalwarts Mike Daniels and Letroy Guion.
To Clark’s credit, he said the cut in playing time “definitely” lit a fire under him. Rather than pout, he redoubled his efforts.
“You’ve got to understand the situation and you’ve got to understand yourself,” he said. “There’s nothing else you can do but get better. That’s one of the things I really focused on. Back at home, I studied more film than I usually did, stayed longer in the weight room, stayed longer on the practice field and just listened to coach (Mike Trgovac) to really get the techniques down and what the team is asking me to do. I feel like I’ve been playing my role and getting better at my role.”
Clark’s role on Sunday is clear. When he’s double-teamed, he’s got to hold firm. When the Cowboys run their zone-stretch, Clark’s got to stay in his gap to prevent Elliott from finding a seam. When Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott drops back to pass, Clark will have to provide some pressure — something he’s done the past three weeks.
The Packers’ fate will be determined in large part by the play of the defensive line. Clark is ready for that challenge.
“I feel like I’m getting better every week,” he said. “It’s a steady process for me. This last game, I think I did a really good job of staying in my gap. I made it hectic in there for the running back. I’m getting better every week. I feel more comfortable and I’m excited to get a second chance at playing the Cowboys.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.