The Green Bay Packers’ depth at edge rusher is going to be tested in their upcoming divisional round matchup with the San Francisco 49ers now that the defense will reportedly be without Kingsley Enagbare for the rest of their playoff run.
Enagbare left Sunday’s game in Dallas early with a knee injury. Afterward, Matt LaFleur said it “does not look good,” and Ian Rapoport has since reported that the Packers fear Enagbare did tear his ACL.
“I’m confident he’s got a lot of support here,” said LaFleur on Monday. “Leaving after talking to him, he’s talking with the docs, you walk outside the door there’s RG (Rashan Gary), Preston (Smith), (Lukas) Van Ness, Rebs (Jason Rebrovich), all waiting to go in and talk to him.
“Those guys are all hurting for him. We’re all hurting for him. He’s come so far. He shows up with the right approach, right attitude every day. It’s obviously very disappointing for him, for our football team, that he’s in this position.”
As part of the second line edge rusher rotation with Lukas Van Ness, Enagbare provided a well-rounded presence and made that jump from Year 1 to Year 2 that many successful NFL players make. This season he had totaled 27 pressures, including two sacks, and was also a key special teams contributor.
Against the run, Enagbare has provided a steady presence as well. He ranks 19th out of 55 eligible edge rushers in PFF’s run stop rate metric, and is first in that category within his position group on this Packers team.
“I can’t say enough great things about him,” added LaFleur. “To see the growth from last year to this year. His contributions not only on defense but on teams as well, and I just love his play style. His relentless pursuit of the football. There’s a number of examples in that game of just the physicality that we preach. The hustle to the ball.”
Edge rusher is one of the more heavily rotated positions in football, with all four players regularly active on game days for the Packers seeing playing time each week. That means in Enagbare’s absence, someone is going to have to step up and earn those snaps.
The obvious choice is rookie Brenton Cox Jr., who has been on the 53-man roster all season but is regularly inactive. This year has been more of a development year for him.
Cox has appeared in three games this season, totaling five defensive snaps and eight on special teams.
“Just recognizing different plays,” said Cox on where he’s seen the most growth in his game this season. “Different backfield sets, and learning from the guys in front of me mostly. Just making the most of the opportunity, taking full advantage of it and just trying to make myself better every day.”
Without Enagbare, the Packers could end up leaning more heavily on Van Ness, who may be asked to shoulder more of the workload, given Cox’s inexperience coupled with the magnitude of the game.
Van Ness came out of Iowa as a high ceiling prospect but was quite raw as well. The majority of his college snaps came as an interior defensive lineman, so along with making the jump from college to the NFL, he’s also been learning a new position as well.
From Weeks 2 through 11, Van Ness would record only two pressures during that span. However, since then, he has 13 pressures in his last eight games, including four sacks in the last five.
“He’s really shown progress and that’s what you want to see from your young players,” said LaFleur of Van Ness. “The more he plays the better he gets. You look at how we are using him compared to how he played in college and it’s been a big learning curve for him.
“I think I’ve said it many times, D-line, outside linebackers there’s a natural learning curve with playing that position when you go from college to the NFL. I think a lot of it is just in terms of the caliber of opponent that you’re going against down in and down out. But I think Van Ness the more he plays the better he gets.”
At some point in the near future, Enagbare will be placed on IR, which will open up a roster spot on the 53-man. Although the Packers have played with only four active edge rushers on game day for much of the season, they could choose to sign edge rusher Keshawn Banks from the practice squad.
Banks is an undrafted rookie from San Diego State who signed with the Packers following the draft. He would flash during training camp here and there, specifically against the run.
However, if the Packers want to use that roster spot for another position but still want the depth at edge rusher against San Francisco, they could just elevate Banks on game day. He still has all three of his elevations remaining.
Given how the Packers have operated this season, relying so heavily on young players, an outside addition feels unlikely, not to mention that at this stage of the game there aren’t many available options.
At times the Packers’ pass rush this season has been hot and cold, but they’ve been much more consistent as of late. The Packers finished sixth as a team in pressure rate to end the regular season.
Generating pressures are always important, but given the Packers upcoming opponent, the San Francisco 49ers, it feels like a must with the playmakers they have and their ability to put up points.
Brock Purdy has been under pressure on 38.6 percent of his dropbacks, according to PFF, which ranks as the 15th highest out 43 eligible quarterbacks. With that said, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee success as he’s been one of the most efficient when under duress.
“It’s going to be the next man,” said LaFleur of the edge rusher position. “That’s just the mentality and the reality of the NFL. Another guy gets an opportunity and we will see where we are at at the end of the week.”