GREEN BAY, Wis. — Writhing on the ground in pain, Kenny Clark thought his season was over.
The Green Bay Packers’ defensive lineman was carted to the locker room. His mother, in town for Thanksgiving week, cried as she watched from the Lambeau Field stands.
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As bad as it looked, Clark felt fortunate to just suffer a high ankle sprain. And after the missing the first game in his football career dating back to high school, Clark is back at practice in hopes of resuming his impressive second NFL season on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“It’s tough, it’s tough. I’m optimistic about it, I’m happy I’m out there practicing finally,” Clark said. “I’m just trying to see how it feels this week and hopefully I can play.”
At only 22, the 6-foot-3, 314-pound Clark has emerged to give Green Bay another rock up front against the run alongside veteran Mike Daniels.
“I’m not thinking, I’m not going out there worried if I messed up a play or not,” Clark said this week. “I’m just going out there, playing hard, flying around. Just playing football like I’ve always played in college and since I was a kid.”
Another second-year player, Blake Martinez has turned into key contributor at inside linebacker. Fourth in the league at 99 tackles, Martinez had a breakout game in the 31-28 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers with 15 tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery.
“I think Blake is having a heck of a year. 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,” coach Mike McCarthy said.
Martinez and Clark are key reasons the Packers (5-6) have been getting gradually better against the run. They’re ranked 11th in rush defense this week, up 16 spots since Week 7.
With Daniels as the anchor, if outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry set the edges, running backs are funneled into the middle and met by Martinez.
“There’s a direct correlation between the guys we have in there and the fact that I would say for the most part we have a pretty good run defense there,” Matthews said, “and it starts with guys in the middle, guys big, stout guys who can hold their gaps, but have the athleticism to run down the line on certain stretch plays.”
Clark displays similar athleticism, though he’s usually tangled up with beefy offensive linemen up front. Double-team Daniels, yet Clark has enough talent to win his 1-on-1 matchup and at least close down a gap.
Matthews teases Clark by calling him “Mr. Consistent.”
“You look at the stat sheet and it’s `So what’ right? You turn on the film and he’s (tough) to deal with out there,” Matthews said.
The Packers’ first-round draft pick in 2016, Clark arrived in Green Bay following veteran B.J. Raji’s surprise retirement that offseason. He played in every game as a rookie, even playing through a few weeks with a sore back.
So missing the loss to Pittsburgh last week was difficult for Clark. He got hurt the previous week in a 23-0 loss to Baltimore. Teammates, including safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, questioned whether it was a clean play after Clark got tangled up with Ravens offensive lineman Ryan Jensen.
Clark said on Wednesday that Jensen texted him after the game and “told me he wasn’t trying to do anything dirty. I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I just let it go. It is what it is. It’s football. It happens.”
One bright spot, Clark’s mother stayed to help take care of her son. Mom made cream of wheat.
“Cream of wheat is good, man,” Clark said. “She stayed for Thanksgiving. So I got some Thanksgiving cooking, too.”