Who Stepped Up and Who Stepped In For The 2019 Packers

How this team put together such a special season

Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith (The Smith Brothers) postgame. YouTube/Green Bay Packers Channel 2019.

Your 2019 Packers are hosting a playoff game at Lambeau Field on Sunday, January 12th after winning the NFC North and going 13-3.

How did they get there?

The answer is mostly about who stepped up and who stepped in for this team.

The 2019 Packers are an interesting squad and no doubt underrated, despite their record. This team simply knows how to win, as experts continue to voice their criticisms. A handful of men raised their level of performance for this squad, while others came to this team and exceeded all expectations.

There are other good (arguably great) players on this team that made an impact, too, but the Packers wouldn’t have been 13-3 without these guys stepping in and stepping up.

Packers fans will remember this team for years to come, regardless of what happens in the playoffs. Hopefully 2020 is as exciting as 2019 was for Green Bay.

These are the players that we’ll remember years from now as this team surprised the NFL world.

Who Stepped Up:

Mason Crosby, Aaron Jones, Kevin King, Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry, Tramon Williams and Mike Pettine.

Mason Crosby, the team’s longtime kicker, wasn’t guaranteed a job at the beginning of the 2019 season. He performed well and won the job and he continued that success into the season, where he had his best ever field goal percentage. He’s as mentally tough as they come. A worthy captain for this team.

In 2019, running back Aaron Jones proved he can be an every down back and receiver out of the backfield. Earlier this year we wrote about how he needed to get 19-23 touches per game. He came in at 17.8 touches per game in 2019. In two of the Packers’ losses, he had his lowest touches of the season (Chargers and 49ers). Had Jones been in that 19-23 range the Packers would have been even better. Even so, we called him having a monster year in 2019 — thanks to Lafleur, we were right. He led the NFL in touchdowns scored.

Third year cornerback Kevin King stayed on the field for the 2019 Packers. He played 15 games in his first two injury-riddled seasons combined. He played that many in just this season alone. In his first two seasons, he had only one interception and seven passes defended. He picked off five passes in 2019 (multiple game-sealing picks) and defended 15 passes. King not only made plays all year, he made plays at big times.

Kenny Clark by Jeffrey Beall [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)]
One of the defensive leaders, defensive tackle Kenny Clark, filled a major hole for the Packers’ defense in 2019. New edge rushers (the “Smith Brothers,” although not actually related) combined for 25.5 sacks this year. No doubt Clark’s ability to get a push up the middle, not allowing the quarterback to step up, played a major role in that.

How many times in recent years did Packers fans see Clay Matthews beat the tackle around the end only to have the quarterback step up and throw a pass? Because of Clark, quarterbacks couldn’t do that in 2019. He tied his career high in sacks and set new marks in tackles and tackles for loss.

Despite not getting to the quarterback in 2019, defensive tackle Dean Lowry played his role perfectly for the Packers. He didn’t try to do too much while starting all 16 games for this team. Lowry filled the hole that Mike Daniels left when he was cut (for a lot less money). He played the run better than he had in his entire career in 2019 and he’s only 25, just imagine if he keeps developing.

Tramon Williams, longtime Packers cornerback, received a Pro Bowl vote in 2019, and, as much as that doesn’t matter, it’s still a credit to how he’s kept his body in such good shape at 36. Williams is so important to this defense because he’s an example for King and Jaire Alexander. At his age, two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, and one forced-fumble is no joke. He always seemed to be in the right place all of 2019.

Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine received some hate in the middle of the season from Packer Nation, but his season as a whole was fantastic. He used his best players in creative ways (i.e. Za’Darius Smith rushing from all areas) and he allowed his stars to be stars. The defense closed out and won multiple games in 2019. Just look at their red zone defense. Pettine deciding to stay with a first year head coach, for the sake of consistency, was huge for this team.

You could also say that General Manager Brian Gutekunst “stepped up” in a big way with his draft picks and free agent signings (see who stepped in, below). The second year GM should be the NFL’s executive of the year.

More than anything else, the obvious story of the Packers’ 2019 season is all about the new guys in town. These nine guys have completely changed the culture of Titletown in a matter of months. Impressive? Yes. Are fans appreciating this culture change enough? Hell no. Here are those men.

Who Stepped In:

Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Elgton Jenkins, Billy Turner, Adrian Amos, Darnell Savage, Allen Lazard, Tyler Ervin and Matt Lafleur.

The man we call “Z”, the abominable Za’Darius Smith, was the defensive captain this team needed. Aaron Rodgers said Smith was a leader long before the season started. 13.5 sacks later, and a change in culture for this team, wow, he was right. Smith made all of the players around him better. We can’t wait to see what he does in the playoffs. He’s already earned his money, it’s incredible. GM Brian Gutekunst gets a bevy of credit here.

The other “Smith Brother” Preston Smith was the other prized edge rusher the Packers brought in for 2019. He made an impact as a pass rusher and as a legitimate linebacker. He defended passes and got his hands on the ball on numerous occasions. Teams double-teaming him, at times, allowed “Z” to dominate. Preston helped set the tone early for this defense. Amazingly, both Smith’s put up career years.

Name us a better story in the NFL than the Smith Brothers? OK, maybe Lamar Jackson’s dominance, but after that… it’s them.

Rookie left guard Elton Jenkins, has been the biggest surprise for the 2019 Packers. He beat out a veteran guard and hasn’t looked back. He’s obviously a supreme talent and will be a huge part of this team for years to come. Jenkins made the Pro Football Focus’ All-Rookie team and he didn’t allow a sack in 2019 in 571 pass-blocking snaps (despite Rodgers noxiously holding the ball for long periods of time).

The Packers’ lone offensive free agent signing in 2019 was right guard Billy Turner, who filled a major hole for this team. Although some people have criticized his play, he’s been a positive for this team. All accounts say he’s an absolutely great guy to have in the locker room, too. Everything starts with the offensive line; new GM Brian Gutekunst knew this and addressed the position.

Green Bay went from having no reliable safeties in 2018 to having two in 2019. Not just reliable, but playmakers. Free agent Adrian Amos is a leader for this defense and let that be known from game one (a game-sealing interception against the Bears). There hasn’t been such a perfect form-tackler and “angle-taker” in the Packers’ defensive backfield since Nick Collins.

The other safety that has impacted this defense is Darnell Savage. The 22 year old rookie has been great. Sure there have been a few hiccups, but his two picks and two forced-fumbles cannot be ignored (in 14 games played). His speed helped eliminate the over-the-top throws that plagued the 2018 Packers. He also was, deservedly, named to Pro Football Focus’ All-Rookie team.

Before the 2019 season, who would have thought we’d be talking about wide receiver Allen Lazard come January? He was a practice squad player that turned himself into the second best receiver on a 13-3 football team. His potential is untapped. He’s a big receiver and he has the willingness and ability to block. He has Rodgers’ trust; the only other player that has it is Davante Adams. He was targeted 17 times in Weeks 16 and 17. Look for him to make a big impact in the postseason.

The late-season addition to this team, punt returner Tyler Ervin, changed the way fans looked at the Packers’ special teams as a whole. Green Bay was historically bad at returning punts, Ervin changed that in just four games played. For a team that depends heavily on the run, field position means everything and Ervin helped give them that — finally. His addition also keeps playmakers like Alexander, Williams, and Savage from having to return punts.

What more could possibly be said about new Head Coach Matt Lafleur? 13 wins as a first time head coach, a first round bye, and a home playoff game speaks for itself. His offense should only get better as Rodgers and the rest of the gang continue to learn the offense. The timing and rhythm can only get better. The change of culture is a credit to him as much as anyone. The Packers found a special coach, people.

Rookie pass rusher Rashan Gary has a chance to be a real difference maker, he just needs more time to develop — a luxury this Packers defense has.

Of course, we have to mention a few of the Packers’ best players that aren’t new to the team and also didn’t necessarily raise their game for the 2019 season. These players were already fantastic in 2018 and continued their play into this season. Did all of them play at an All-Pro level in 2019? Of course not. But they played good enough to lead the Packers to a first round bye in the playoffs.

Who Stayed the Course:

Jaire Alexander, Corey Linsley, David Bahktiari, Bryan Bulaga, Davante Adams, Aaron Rodgers, Jamal Williams and Blake Martinez.

Alexander has continued his ascent to being one of the NFL’s elite cornerbacks. We would have liked a few more turnovers created (#JustCatchTheBall) but we won’t be greedy. Linsley, Bahktiari, and Bulaga have all remained pillars for this team on the offensive line. Again, everything starts up front in the trenches and the 2019 Packers have many leaders up front. This offensive line is championship quality; we’ll know how far they can take this team in the coming weeks.

One of the best wide receivers in the NFL, Adams, battled a turf-toe injury and still put up a huge season. He’s a bonafide superstar. Rodgers had an up and down season, but he’s a quarterback learning a new offense on the fly. He’s been incredibly unselfish when it comes to his statistics and is showing why he’s the leader this 2019 Packers team needs.

Jones’s running mate, Williams, has continued his consistent play for the Packers. The hard-nosed runner showed ample toughness and pass-catching ability in 2019. Look for him to shine in the cold temperature at Lambeau Field on Sunday. He’s a gamer. The most polarizing player on Packers Twitter is inside linebacker Martinez. He gets hated on, but hey, he’s reliable. He’s A.J. Hawk 2.0 and remember, the Packers won a Super Bowl with Hawk in the middle of the defense.

Who has been your favorite player of the 2019 season? A player that stepped up, a player that stepped in or a player that stayed the course?

The 25 men mentioned here together have made this Packers season incredibly memorable and they’re not done yet. What an amazing year it’s been.

What’s great is that it took all of them for the Green Bay Packers to put together a 13-3 season. Now they’re just two wins from a berth in the Super Bowl. Wow.

Freaking #GoPackGo

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