General manager Brian Gutekunst typically adds new faces to the roster heading into the postseason (i.e., Jared Veldheer and Snacks Harrison), but this year, he subtracted an old face. Former starting defensive end Kingsley Keke was released on Wednesday, about 72 hours before the Packers host the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Keke hadn’t played a snap since Week 15. He was a healthy scratch against Baltimore and then missed games against Minnesota (COVID) and Detroit (illness). Coach Matt LaFleur would only say that Keke’s benching was for a “personal” reason.
Because LaFleur was so vague and the local beat writers did their usual poor job of reporting, it’s impossible to know what’s really going on with Keke. Since injured players can’t be outright released, he must be healthy. And it’s hard to believe this move was 100% performance-related. The 25-year-old may not be a star, but he was certainly one of the top five defensive linemen on the roster. He was, for the most part, OK vs. the run, and his 25 pressures were fifth on the team.
If I have to guess, the decision to move on from Keke has less to do with his performance in games and more to do with his attitude. Maybe he had an issue with a coach. Perhaps he was unhappy about his playing time, which had decreased in the weeks leading up to his benching. Maybe he wasn’t practicing hard enough. The only thing for sure is that an already thin defensive line just got even thinner with the run-heavy 49ers on their way to Lambeau Field on Saturday night.
Veteran Tyler Lancaster and rookie T.J. Slaton have seen their snaps increase during Keke’s absence, but neither player is a natural defensive end. In fact, aside from Dean Lowry, the only two true ends left are Abdullah Anderson and R.J. McIntosh, who are currently on the practice squad. Nose tackle Kenny Clark has also seen some time outside, but it’s difficult to imagine the coaches are anxious to move him away from the position that just got him voted to the Pro Bowl.
So what should we expect on Saturday night? Look for Lancaster to get most of the snaps at the left end when coordinator Joe Barry plays three defensive linemen. The former Northwestern star is a below-average athlete for the position, but he’s strong as an ox and will fight like hell on every snap. The best way to make sure Lancaster isn’t a liability vs. the run is to give him plenty of support. That means the outside linebackers will need to set a strong edge, the inside linebackers will need to get off blocks and be physical, and the defensive backs will need to come up hard in support.
What happened too many times in Week 16 against Cleveland can’t happen on Saturday. On the play below, Lancaster (#95) does about as well as can be expected against the right tackle, but Gary (#52) crashes inside and fails to contain, Barnes (#51) gets stuck to a block, and safety Darnell Savage (#26) gives a halfhearted effort. The result is an easy 17-yard gain. You can be sure 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan will keep calling a similar play until the Packers show they can stop it.
Lancaster played 50% of the defensive snaps against the run-heavy Browns; the 34 snaps were his third-highest total of the regular season.
As far as getting after the quarterback is concerned, the expected return of All-Pro outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith from injured reserve should lessen the impact of not having Keke around as an interior rusher in obvious passing situations. Smith, who had 26 sacks the past two seasons, figures to take over that role as he reacclimatizes himself to the defense.
While this surprising move shouldn’t have much affect on the Packers chances of winning the Super Bowl next month, it’s hard to put a positive spin on cutting a talented young player whom a linemate described this way before the start of the season:
“He has an athletic ability I think none of us really has,” said Clark. “He has great wiggle inside and I feel like if he showed guys more, that he could power people and get people to respect his power and put that on tape, then he’ll get more guys to sit on the power and he’d be able to wiggle and do everything else that he wants to really do. I’m excited to keep seeing him grow. We’ve been talking about that since summer. I expect to see him take that step forward in his development.”
Needless to say, if picking a defensive lineman early in April’s draft wasn’t already a priority before Wednesday, it sure is now.