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Packers’ Defensive Backs Hold the Keys to the Rest of the Season

Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will be in the cross-hairs for Green Bay’s final half-dozen regular-season games. A team that ranks 28th in yardage surrendered has no business being in the NFL playoffs. If Pettine can reduce both the rushing and passing yardage yielded in these final games by 30 yards each, that would put the Packers at around tenth best during that six-game stretch. For the reasons below it’s an attainable goal

On paper, the Packers easily have the personnel to be a top-ten defensive force. So, who’s not holding up their end of the bargain?

It’s certainly not the Smiths, the team’s two new edge rushers. While Preston is among the league leaders in sacks, Za’Darius has had even more QB pressures than his partner. With the pressure that Green Bay has consistently gotten on quarterbacks, it almost has to be the defensive backs who bear the bulk of the responsibility for giving up 257.8 yards per game – tenth worst in the league.

Kenny Clark

Nov 10, 2019; Green Bay, WI, USA; Carolina Panthers’ Kyle Allen (7) avoids a tackle by Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Kenny Clark (97) in the first quarter at Lambeau Field. Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Backing up nose tackle Kenny Clark on the D-line are a group of adequate, though hardly exceptional, players: Dean Lowry, Tyler Lancaster, and Montravius Adams. Pettine has been rotating his 300+ pounders, with Lowry getting 63% of the snaps, Lancaster 37%, and Adams 23% – they ought to be fresh the rest of the way.

After a hot start, Clark, who fans thought was going to have a Pro Bowl year, cooled off. Pro Football Focus, however, couldn’t praise the 24-year-old fourth-year man enough for his efforts against Carolina. Having Clark in top form during the Pack’s stretch run could work wonders for this defense.

I don’t know whether to label Kyler Fackrell a lineman or a linebacker. Either way, in playing 36 percent of the defensive snaps, he has only 11 tackles and one-half sack – though he does have 6 QB hits. He needs to get more involved in the mayhem going forward.

All the members of the D-Line should be doing more to slow down opposing running backs. Upcoming rival RBs vary greatly in talent: the 49ers’ RB threesome have rushed for 1,299 yards in Shanahan’s run-happy offense; the Giants have Saquon Barkley, who rushed for 1,307 yards as a rookie in 2018; the Redskins rely upon hoary Adrian Peterson; Chicago’s RBs have cooled off, with David Montgomery at 3.5 ypc and scatback Tarik Cohen at 3.1; the Vikes’ likely All-Pro Dalvin Cook is already over 1,000 yards on the year, though on Sunday the Broncos held him to 26 yards on 11 carries – maybe Zimmer has worn him out; the Lions’ Kerryon Johnson is averaging only 3.3 ypc.

This brings us to the inside linebackers. Since 2017, Blake Martinez has easily been the NFL’s leading tackler, and he’s only two behind the Cards’ Jordan Hicks (who’s played an extra game) again this season. Plus, he’s played the last three games with either a club or a cast on his wrist. Add to that that he never misses games.

Yet two Packers-dedicated web sites in the past two weeks have gone so far as to suggest Green Bay drop him when his contract is up for renewal next season – what do these critics want, anyway?

Improvement may be in store at the other ILB spot. The current pecking order is Ibraheim Campbell, B. J. Goodson, and Oren Burks bringing up the rear. The Packers know Campbell well, as he finished 2018 with Green Bay, and they couldn’t wait to get him in the Carolina game as soon as he got off injured reserve. In getting a little more than half of the defensive snaps against the Panthers, Campbell registered six tackles.

The Packers clearly have two fine safeties in Adrian Amos and rookie Darnell Savage. Amos seems to be getting more comfortable with Pettine’s defense with each game – he had a 100+ yard pick-six go through his arms on Sunday on the play that Williams got the interception. Savage, injured against Dallas in Week 5, is just getting back to the form he showed in his first few games. I’m expecting these two to increasingly clamp down on opposing receivers over the ensuing six games.

Jaire Alexander

Nov 3, 2019; Carson, CA, USA; Green Bay Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander (23) cannot make a play on a pass intended for Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen (13) during the second quarter at Dignity Health Sports Park. Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Lastly, we have cornerbacks Jaire Alexander, Kevin King, and Tramon Williams. Pro Football Focus rates Tramon as the Packers’ top defensive back on the year, so I’ll take their word on it that the veteran’s wiliness is making up for his diminishing speed.

Alexander and King are super athletes, as shown by the fact they are the top CB tandem in the league in terms of passes defended: Jaire has 12 and Kevin has 11. Having said that, Jaire is having a down season compared with his eye-opening rookie year. He’s been a tad off all year – it’s critical that he play up to his potential the rest of the way.

King has overcome the injury jinx so far this year, but his inconsistency is nerve-wracking. He’s either all over his guy or he’s not even in the picture.

I view the biggest defensive culprits on the year as being these two young and talented cornerbacks. If each had just caught balls thrown right into their bread baskets, the Pack would have four or five additional interceptions, two or three of which would likely have been pick-sixes. Jaire in particular has pressed too much to jump in front of receivers, only to have them go deep without anyone backing him up. I’m looking for a world of rapid improvement from this duo.

There you have it. Guys who need to – and likely will – perform better for Pettine in the next six weeks are, in this observer’s order: Jaire Alexander, Kevin King, Kenny Clark, Darnell Savage, and Kyler Fackrell. You can add in Ibraheim Campbell as a guy who’s bound to benefit this defense.

Rob Born

Smart drafters don’t select the best available players, they fill a team’s positions of greatest need.



  1. Kirk Cousin's Mom November 19, 2019

    Fire Ted Thompson!! Derpitty do!! Can’t wait for PF4Loo to reply for you!!

    1. PF4L November 20, 2019

      Lucky for you J P allows children’s hour, and bouncing under different usernames saying stupid nonsensical. I can just imagine what we’d find if all your usernames were revealed from your IP. I use one, always have, always will. But then again, i’m an adult.

      1. Kirk Cousin's Mom November 20, 2019

        Says the person using an alias called PF4L to post comments. Let me know how “adulthood” works out for you.

        1. PF4L November 20, 2019

          Lucky for you J P allows children’s hour, and bouncing under different usernames saying stupid nonsensical. I can just imagine what we’d find if all your usernames were revealed from your IP. I use one, always have, always will. But then again, i’m an adult.

  2. MJ November 20, 2019

    IDK, Rob… Plenty of times there are WRs roaming seemingly uncontested through the middle of the field. A number of those I attribute to miscommunication, or outright blown coverages, but isn’t the scheme to take its share of blame too? If the formation requires the DBs to play deep zones, the by definition, they won’t be as tightly stuck to their WR.
    At least a couple of times I saw the LBs close to the line and the DBs all too deep, leaving a huge empty void in the middle. That was corrected after a couple of plays, though, so Pettine does seem to be somewhat reacting to what happens to his defense.

  3. Kato November 20, 2019

    This defense has been incredibly healthy, only a few games missed die to injury. It’s the excuse last year, yet this year at this point, the yards given up average isn’t much better, the only improvement made was red zone defense. At some point you need to question the coach and scheme. There is time to turn it around, but if at the end of the season the defense struggles to a season ending loss, just remember this isn’t LaFleur’s guy

  4. Stiggy November 20, 2019

    The general gripe with Martinez is he leads the nfl in tackles…6 yards down the field ala AJ hawk. It’s become apparent other teams are now targeting him in the pass game…and this week will he the ultimate test when hes facing kittle. I feel hes an average starter who does some things good but hes a massive liability in space anand pass coverage. He also gets washed out more than you would like to see.

    I dont see them paying him what he could get in fa and frankly he may be grossly overvalued in fa.

    1. PF4L November 20, 2019

      He does lack in coverage, and if you keep him, you pay him accordingly. What he gives you is tackles, he gets it on hustle, effort, and a high motor. He doesn’t half Tramon it. Oops..i misspoke. I meant to say he doesn’t half ass it. Make no mistake, he’s not a pro bowler. But, even with his faults, i find it hard to lay into a guy who works as hard as he does and leads the league in tackles….as long as he doesn’t get the “Russ Ball Lottery Ticket”

      1. PF4L November 20, 2019

        No offense Billy

    2. Howard November 20, 2019

      Stiggy, last year PFF had Martinez graded overall at a 74.8 (starter), this year PFF currently has Martinez graded overall at 57.5 (replaceable). PFF may be wrong and Martinez still has some games to improve and recover from injury, but that is what PFF thinks about Martinez’s season so far, for what that is worth.
      Someone last week questioned Kings grade from PFF. King is currently graded overall at 59 slightly better than Martinez, for what it is worth.

      1. PF4L November 20, 2019

        For those interested, PFF grades…..
        Rashan Gary..55.6
        Billy Turner…61.3….4 sacks allowed…..(2018 grade…62.8)
        David Bakhtiari….70.8 ……2 sacks allowed……(2018 grade…88.3)
        Bryan Bulaga……72.5….3 sacks allowed…..(2018 grade…75)
        Corey Linsley…..63.9…..4 sacks allowed….(2018 grade…73.7)
        Elgton Jenkins….67.1…0 sacks allowed….6 penalties no doubt hurt his score. Gets rookie pass

        1. PF4L November 20, 2019

          Keep in mind i don’t treat PFF as the Bible, but it’s the closest out there regarding player performance.

          1. Howard November 20, 2019

            Agree about PFF. One thing it doesn’t do well is show how players on a team or in a group (OL) work together to make the team and/or group better. Several veteran players on the Packers have been graded lower or substantially lower this year than last year including but not limited to the few we have listed. One of the reasons may be the offensive players are Learning a new system. I wonder how the team can have a much better record so far with so many lower grades and some learning a new system? I think because they are working better together as a team and better play the roles required of them by the coaches.

            One good thing is look at the top five grade improvements as issued by PFF yesterday as follows:
            Biggest overall grade improvements from the first (5) games compared to most recent (5) this season on offense.

            Jamaal Williams +20.2
            Billy Turner +15.7
            Aaron Jones +13.4
            Aaron Rodgers +12.0
            Corey Linsley +8.6

          2. Jason Parker November 20, 2019

            Gonna use those to do a write-up later, thanks

          3. Howard November 20, 2019

            Oops, forgot the defensive side of the ball top five grade improvements as issued yesterday from PFF as follows:
            Biggest overall grade improvements from the first (5) games compared to most recent (5) this season on defense.

            Rashan Gary +27.3
            Montravius Adams +25.8
            Za’Darius Smith +16.3
            Dean Lowry +15.1
            Kyler Fackrell +14.6

          4. PF4L November 21, 2019

            Well, that means Adams grade got a boost, but right now he’s at 43.8. which in
            PFF translation means…give the team their money back.

        2. MJ November 21, 2019

          PF4L, you showed the PFF ratings for the OL and the number of sacks. While they have conceded a small number (especially Elgton Jenkins, with zero!), how have they been working as run blockers? That may account for the lower-than-expected score.

          1. Howard November 21, 2019

            Unless you pay you cannot see the breakdown of run, pass, etc. you just see the overall grade. It is the same for all the players grades at every position.

          2. PF4L November 21, 2019

            Exactly…Thank you Howard.

            In other words MJ, i’d love to have PFF (for free), but i’m to damn cheap and i mostly rely on the eye test and info i might receive from other sources. I read somewhere where a lot of teams, if not all, subscribe to PFF for their scouts. I’m fairly certain that info is also somewhat used to make up their draft boards.

            MJ…you make a good point about the run blocking aspect hurting their grades, and i’m sure it does. but i think the big things they look at is sacks allowed, penalties, hurries. QB hits, etc.One thing is for damn sure, this isn’t a great year for the O line, but Jenkins is the bright spot when you consider his growth gives him a high ceiling. I was thinking out loud in a previous post wondering if Jenkins has quick enough feet to slide over to LT when it’s needed down the road. I wonder that, because good left tackles are gold in this league. So far a great 2nd round pick.

  5. Helen Keller November 20, 2019

    Everyone shut up, Rob has spoken! Fire everybody, trade everybody! Its over!

  6. PF4L November 20, 2019

    Added thought : Some say, (and i once said the same thing), is that a lot of his tackles are down field. But…what happens if he doesn’t make the tackle? They get in field goal range? Make a first down? Score a TD? At the very least, they gain more yards until/if someone else makes the tackle even further downfield. So, whether he stuffs a run for no gain, or tackles a guy 9 yards downfield, it’s a positive thing

    1. MJ November 21, 2019

      It is a positive thing the same way getting a D is better than getting an F. I get that everyone can get beat on any given play, but letting the opposition consistently get 1st downs nets them a score in the end.

      1. PF4L November 21, 2019

        i hear that MJ, but Martinez isn’t the only player out there and i won’t lay it all on him. He gives more effort and results than most. Look at the Smith brothers when they run out the edge and they are trying to tackle. It’s not all roses, flowers and sacks my friend when looking at the big picture. I watch a lot of plays, multiple times, i like to see what happened, how players performed.
        I’m not trying to pick on the Smith brothers and this won’t be popular to dis the sack brothers, but they can look really out of place on the outside trying to tackle for OLB’s