Can the Smiths Build On Their 2019 Performance This Season?

The Green Bay Packers signed Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith as free agents last March to improve their ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks. The Packers shelled out big bucks for the two free agents and they certainly got their money’s worth in 2019. Both Preston and Za’Darius enjoyed career years during their first seasons in Green Bay. But can they keep playing at that level this season or will they regress back to the way they played earlier in their careers? It will be vital for the Packers to get another productive season out of both Smiths in 2020.

Preston took over at LOLB and provided the Packers with a steady presence both rushing the passer and in coverage when he was asked to drop back. The former Redskins starter recorded a career high 12 sacks after never having more than eight sacks over his first four NFL seasons.

Preston also had a career high with 56 total tackles on the season, breaking his previous high of 53 set during his final season in Washington. He also recorded 11 tackles for loss and 23 quarterback hits according to pro-football-reference.com.

Za’Darius also enjoyed a career year for the Packers in 2019. The former Ravens linebacker recorded 13.5 sacks for the Pack after never topping 8.5 sacks in his first four seasons in the league. He also made 55 total tackles, that’s also a career best mark. Za’Darius also recorded 37 quarterback hits and 17 tackles for loss.

At times, Za’Darius was dominant. His performance in Week 16 in Minnesota stopped the Vikings offense cold and helped the Pack clinch the NFC North title. In that game, he recorded seven total tackles, five for loss and 3.5 sacks.

Both Smiths were on the field more than they had been previously in their careers. Za’Darius was on the field for 84 percent of the Packers defensive snaps while never playing more than 67 percent while in Baltimore. Meanwhile, Preston was also on the field for 84 percent of the defensive plays for Green Bay which just surpassed the 81 percent he had in Washington in 2018.

The Green Bay coaching staff has indicated they don’t want to see the Smiths on the field quite as often this season to prevent them from tiring and wearing down late in the season.

During an offseason conference call with reporters, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said, “I think at times where Preston and Z probably played maybe a little too much. That we want to take some off their plate.”

Look for Rashan Gary and Kingsley Keke to be among the players that help spell the Smiths this season. Still, expects the Smiths to play at least 70 percent of the defensive snaps assuming they stay healthy this season.  

Pettine is also planning on using both Smith Brothers in a variety of ways. Za’Darius sometimes lined up as a defensive lineman with his hand in the dirt on many plays last season and may continue to do that. Preston was used in pass coverage at times as well. As the players grow more comfortable in Pettine’s defense this season, look for Pettine to look for more ways to line them up and utilize their talents to keep opposing offenses guessing.

In addition to their solid play on the field, Preston and Za’Darius Smith helped the Packers with solid leadership in the locker room. The Smiths helped make the Packers locker room a more unified and fun place to be and they helped improve morale.

Last year, Bryan Bulaga explained the difference the Smiths made. “I think what you see with Z and Preston and those guys that are on that D-line, they've brought a different attitude to that defense,” Bulaga said. “We had good players on the defense. I'm not going to sit here and say they were bad players, but Z and Preston, they brought something else out in a lot of the guys on the team, on the defense.”

Za’Darius also helped keep things light with his sack celebrations and the messages he put on his t-shirts like “snubbed” after he wasn’t voted to the Pro Bowl (he was eventually added to the roster as an injury replacement).

That attitude change will almost certainly carry over in 2020 as the team gets even closer to the Smiths in their second year with the team.

But how close can the Smiths come to replicating their performance on the field. Za’Darius is confident he can do it. “I’m going to continue to do what I’m supposed to do,” he said. “When they brought me in here, they expected that. Because that was something the GM told me when I first got here, when I signed, like, ‘It’s not what you’ve done when you were in Baltimore but what you’re going to do for this organization.’”

If the Smiths stay healthy and continue to receive substantial playing time, there is no reason they can continue to be elite edge rushers and linebackers for the Packers this year and beyond. They certainly will be two of the keys to the defense’s success this season. 

You can follow Gil Martin on Twitter @GilPackers

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Comments (23)

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Ferrari-Driver's picture

August 06, 2020 at 12:10 pm

Gil, Until the Packers demonstrate that they can stop the run, I think we will see teams follow the blueprint used by San Francisco in the playoffs. I would also expect offensive coordinators to better game plan against the obvious strength of the Packers which would tend to mitigate the effectiveness of the Smiths to a certain degree. Nevertheless, I do expect both linebackers to be a load for opposing offenses because of their year of experience in Pettine's system. Bottom line: expect great effort and good results from both linebackers, but fall short of the tremendous statistics they put up last year.

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Leatherhead's picture

August 06, 2020 at 01:17 pm

We couldn’t stop the run last year and we won 13 games.

Teams will run on us until the fall behind and have to throw. We’ve spent a lot of resources on pass defense and that’s clearly our focus. I don’t really see any reason to expect our defense to be significantly different this year.

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Stroh's picture

August 06, 2020 at 06:36 pm

It would only make sense to try to improve the run D. Get better or get worse. That said, improving the run D would likely come at the cost of some pressure on the QB. Its a give and take relationship, so you have to decide how much your willing to lose in pass rush. My guess is they will try to improve run D and it will mean a slight decrease in sacks and pressures. IMO it would be difficult for the Smiths to equal the numbers from last year even under ideal conditions. They are likely to regress some.

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splitpea1's picture

August 06, 2020 at 06:47 pm

Now you're talking....if it's only a slight decrease, then it will be well worth it. Good post.

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GilMartin's picture

August 07, 2020 at 09:20 pm

I hope the defense will improve a bit if some of the younger guys like Gary, Savage, Keke, Sullivan, King etc, will step up after gaining another year of experience. Yes, the defense emphasizes stopping the pass and last year, it paid off much more often than not. Of course, the glaring exceptions were the two losses to SF. Thanks as always for commenting, Leatherhead.

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GilMartin's picture

August 07, 2020 at 09:09 pm

Thanks for the comment, Ferrari-Driver. Had a blackout here so no Wifi until now thanks to this week's tropical storm otherwise I would have responded sooner. I am less concerned about pure statistics and more about overall performance. I think you're right that the raw numbers may fall off a bit, but hopefully, if offenses adjust, Pettine also adjusts and we see an interesting chess match.

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Ryan3468's picture

August 06, 2020 at 12:44 pm

With less prep time for teams to really gel. I’m thinking around the league there will be an uptick in running the ball this year and less on complicated timing type plays. We are going to be seeing some sloppy football as well. I’m still excited. I also think there will be a lot more low scoring games. We could be seeing some 3-9 type games this year on the rise. Teams fielding teams with out a true starting kicker? Or a true starting quarterback? It’s all possible. Tradition doesn’t work well with Covid. I really thought we were going to see a bubble league. Where they limit travel, and play more games in the same stadiums. Go Pack Go! Very excited for the Smiths and the future of the defense. They know they need to figure out how to stop the run, and so does the rest of the league.

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GilMartin's picture

August 07, 2020 at 09:11 pm

Hard to know exactly what we will see this year because of Covid, but yes, I think more sloppy football is definitely on the horizon if we even get the season going. Well, it should be interesting to say the least. I think we will see teams sticking more to the fundamental plays they run best, especially early in the year. Thanks for the comment, Ryan3468.

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gkarl's picture

August 06, 2020 at 03:18 pm

I expect the defense to have a slight improvement from LY, guess I'm just an optimist. As for the Smith's specifically the only thing that could change there performance would be injury or less playing time. I'm hoping some guys step up and we do have a chance get them a break periodically. Better D overall less stats for the Smith's would be OK by me.

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murf7777's picture

August 07, 2020 at 08:49 am

Agree gkarl, mainly because for many (smith bro’s, Gary, amos, Savage) it was the first year in Pettine D. With most everyone back and going into year 3 of his D I would expect a better results.

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GilMartin's picture

August 07, 2020 at 09:18 pm

That is a definite possibility, murf7777 and one I hope does take place. If they stay healthy and get improvements from some of the younger players, this D can truly improve this season. Thanks for commenting.

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GilMartin's picture

August 07, 2020 at 09:12 pm

Thanks for the comment, as always, gkarl. Just got power restored here or I would have responded sooner. I think the Smiths will continue to play at a high level although the raw numbers may not quite equal what they did last year. I agree, I'd take better overall defense and slightly less impressive stats for the Smiths any day.

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mamasboy's picture

August 06, 2020 at 04:15 pm

"They shelled out big bucks for the Smiths" That isn't true. They got a deal!

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Stroh's picture

August 06, 2020 at 07:07 pm

At the time they clearly overpaid for the Smith's. It might look like a good deal now, but its definitely hurting our cap situation.

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GilMartin's picture

August 07, 2020 at 09:17 pm

Yeah, the team is tight against the cap and last year's FA spending spree coupled with Rodgers' big contract are primary reasons for it. At least the Smiths delivered and gave the Pack their money's worth. Thanks as always for commenting, Stroh.

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mamasboy's picture

August 08, 2020 at 07:46 pm

Have another beer Stroh!

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GilMartin's picture

August 07, 2020 at 09:13 pm

Well, I think both are true, mamasboy. They shelled out big bucks but they certainly got their money's worth in year 1. Thanks for commenting.

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albert999's picture

August 06, 2020 at 07:26 pm

They didn’t perform at the NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME?!

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GilMartin's picture

August 07, 2020 at 09:13 pm

True, albert999 but they were far from alone in that regard. Thanks for commenting.

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Tedlyflyfisher's picture

August 06, 2020 at 11:34 pm

Man, what a bunch of negative Nellie’s! I expect even better things in 2020 (assuming there is a season). Another year in Pettine’s system for the Smith’s, Adrian Amos, Darnell Savage, Alexander, KC and company should be great. Sure, there are a few questionable spots, but we’ve got some major talent on the D now!

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GilMartin's picture

August 07, 2020 at 09:14 pm

I love your optimism Tedlyflyfisher and I hope you're right. The potential is certainly there, now they have to make it work. Thanks for the comment.

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CoachDino's picture

August 07, 2020 at 05:04 am

Be great to get the sack totals again, tough task. They can get better and help the D by being A bit more assignment sure mostly in terms of being a beat less aggressive on misdirections and pass rush when rushing is still an option.

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GilMartin's picture

August 07, 2020 at 09:15 pm

Yeah, always a delicate balance CoachDino when you talk about that beat less aggressive. They do get beat sometimes as a result of that but it also allows them to make plays in other situations. Hope they are a bit more confident and comfortable in Year 2 of this defense. Thanks for the comment.

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