GREEN BAY — Mike Smith got a little sidetracked.
The Green Bay Packers’ passionate outside linebackers coach’s answer to a seemingly straightforward question during the team’s offseason program — about whether Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Rashan Gary would all be on the field together more frequently in new defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s system this season — veered suddenly to a get-off-my-lawn, kids-these-days rant about how parents aren’t as tough on their children nowadays.
“I’m sorry,” Smith said sheepishly at the end of his diatribe — the substance of which he still stood 100% behind. “I shouldn’t have rambled.”
The actual answer — buried somewhere between the anecdote about one of his son’s teammates playing in the dirt during a game (“So we were short one outfielder”) and how demanding his own parents were (“Apparently they abused me growing up”) — was this: Yes, that trio should play more together and should make an even bigger impact this season than it did last year, when Za’Darius Smith took a small step back statistically, Preston Smith took a significant step back and Gary made a giant leap forward that may set the stage for a boffo Year 3.
“I was actually thinking about it this morning how grateful I am for my room. I got a bunch of tough, mean, nasty dudes,” Smith said, setting the stage for his rant. Then, returning to his original point, he added, “I’ve got a lot of guys that can play in my room that you can do a lot of good things with. Everybody’s asking, ‘With so many good players, how are you going to get ‘em on the field?’ Well, you need that many pass rushers and guys of their size and strength.”
While depth is important, it’s even more important that the threesome of Smith, Smith and Gary deliver — as good as their position coach feels about them.
The Packers don’t think Barry’s scheme will be all that different for the defensive linemen and edge rushers, but it is possible that Barry will ask Preston Smith to drop into coverage less frequently than he was asked to do so last year under Mike Pettine. At the same time, those drops into coverage became a convenient but inaccurate excuse for the way his production plummeted in his second year in Green Bay.
Barry also wants to get more players involved both on the line and on the edge, so that could mean more playing time for someone like Jonathan Garvin, a seventh-round pick a year ago who flashed in camp last summer, or Randy Ramsey, a developmental prospect who saw action in 12 regular-season games last season — mostly on special teams, although he did play 75 defensive snaps.
“I think the good thing is usually up front, the defensive linemen and pass rushers, those are usually the positions you have a little bit of a rotation,” Barry said. “In today’s NFL, you can’t have enough guys that can rush the passer. And to have Za’Darius, to have Rashan, to have Preston — and then we’ll wait and see who that fourth and fifth guy is — all three of those guys I’m excited (about).
“It’s great, whether we have two of them on the field, all three of them on the field. We’ll get creative and have some fun with it.”
Here’s a closer look at the outside linebackers and edge rushers as the Packers prepare for training camp, which begins with the full team set to report on Tuesday:
55 Za’Darius Smith: 6-foot-4, 272 pounds, 28 years old, seventh year from Kentucky.
91 Preston Smith: 6-5, 265, 28, seventh year from Mississippi State.
52 Rashan Gary: 6-5, 277, 23, third year from Michigan.
53 Jonathan Garvin: 6-4, 257, 21, second year from Miami (Fla.).
56 Randy Ramsey: 6-3, 238, 23, second year from Arkansas.
45 Delontae Scott: 6-5, 246, 24, first year from SMU.
50 Tipa Galeai: 6-5, 229, 24, first year from Utah State.
98 Carlo Kemp: 6-3, 281, 23, rookie from Michigan.
How good can Za’Darius Smith be?
Apparently, Za’Darius spends a lot of time on social media, searching for instances of disrespect that he can channel into his motivation reservoir. The most recent one came from Pro Football Focus, which kept him off its list of the top 10 edge rushers in the NFL.
“Have them just keep doing that stuff. Maybe I’ll get a fake account and start doing it myself and make stuff up there,” Mike Smith said. “Actually, don’t tell him because I am going to do it; that’s a great idea. ‘Can you believe what they said about you today, Z? I cannot believe it.’”
Despite Za’Darius making his second straight Pro Bowl and having his second straight double-digit sack season, his pressure numbers — the stat he himself has said is the most important — dropped. While there was a small dip in his regular-season sack numbers from 2019 (from 13.5 to 12.5), his pressures went from an NFL-high 93 to 51, according to PFF.
“It is what it is. I feel like it adds fuel to the fire,” he said. “I’m just going to continue to prove myself each and every year.”
On the rise
After an underwhelming rookie season in 2019 while the Smiths stole the show, Gary improved by leaps and bounds last year and could be poised for a breakout 2021. He finished last season with 39 quarterback pressures and five sacks, second only to Za’Darius Smith in both categories. And Gary was arguably the Packers’ best defensive player in the team’s NFC divisional win over the Los Angeles Rams, registering seven quarterback pressures and 1.5 sacks.
“I’m not done. While I did make a lot of jumps, I’m still hungry and there’s still room to improve,” Gary said. “I’m taking strides day by day. I’m trying to get better day by day. That’s my mindset — just keeping everything full throttle from last year, not trying to slow down. Not one bit.”