GREEN BAY – Davon House seriously couldn’t believe it. Earlier this month against Tampa Bay, the Packers cornerback was stunned when Kenny Clark celebrated his first NFL sack against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“I’m like, ‘That’s the first sack of your career?’” House recalled. “I would’ve never thought that.”
Clark had to practice a lot of patience during his first 26 regular-season contests, but he’s been difficult for offensive lines to contain since Green Bay’s matchup with Tampa Bay on Dec. 3.
On Sunday night, the second-year defensive tackle continued his torrid pace against the Minnesota Vikings, picking up two more sacks to push his total to 4½ in the month of December.
Both of his sacks of Vikings quarterback Case Keenum came in key situations for the Packers’ defense. His first forced a Minnesota three-and-out in the first quarter, while his second on second-and-8 helped set the table for another stop in the fourth quarter.
It was production Green Bay pass rush’s needed while missing both of its starting outside linebackers, Clay Matthews (hamstring) and Nick Perry (shoulder/foot), and also playing without cornerback Damarious Randall (knee).
Perhaps even more important than statistics is the fact Clark has continued to elevate his game after being carted off due to an ugly ankle injury last month against Baltimore. Since returning against the Buccaneers, Clark has 21 tackles, 4½ sacks and a forced fumble.
While a cog in a run defense that finished eighth in the NFL a year ago, Clark sought to prove he can be more than just a run-stopping nose tackle in his second season. Frustrated at times, Clark credits defensive line coach Mike Trgovac for keeping his spirits up even when the sacks weren’t coming.
“It was like irritating because I knew I was so close,” Clark said. “A couple of times, the Baltimore game I was close, and I was like, ‘Man, the ball’s getting out’ and stuff like that. There’d be times where I had people on their heels and I made a great move.
“There was a play against the Bears I had (Mitchell) Trubisky in my hands and I had the offensive lineman still on me and kind of slipped off of him. There were a couple of plays where I was like, man, I’m so close to getting that sack. It finally opened up for me.”
After notching his first 1½ sacks against Tampa Bay, Clark contributed another during a seven-tackle performance last week against Carolina before stepping up again Saturday in one of the defense’s best performances of the year.
Outside of a 39-yard pass interference penalty on Minnesota’s third series that led to a touchdown, the defense conceded very little to the NFL’s eighth-ranked offense.
Keenum threw for only 139 yards, Pro Bowl receiver Adam Thielen caught only two passes for 24 yards and the Vikings’ run game was limited to 3.4 yards per carry. It was the kind of performance the Packers needed with points at a premium.
“We came out there and we fought,” Clark said. “A couple times we got them in short field and held them to field goals. They got two big penalties on us. They got 10 points off that. For the most part, we fought. We’re happy for our defense and the energy and effort and the heart we played with.”
Like his rookie year, Clark has made strides down the stretch this season. In addition to his sacks, Clark’s 53 tackles in the NFL ledgers are the most of any Green Bay defensive lineman since the Packers switched to a 3-4 defense in 2009.
House knew a little about Clark when he re-signed with Green Bay this offseason, but sees Clark and fellow defensive tackle Mike Daniels as the “salt and pepper” the Packers’ defense needs going into next season.
Still only 22 years old, Clark believes the “sky is the limit” for himself and young defenders such as defensive end Dean Lowry and linebacker Blake Martinez. As the past month has proven, Clark’s rapid maturation has shown he’s more than just a run-defender.
“Throughout the year, I think Kenny’s pass rush has been really improving each week,” Lowry said. “He’s just a dangerous player and I think more and more people are starting to recognize the type of player he is. He’s not just a run-stopping nose tackle. He can pass rush at three-technique, he can do a lot of different things. He has a bright future.”
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