The two outside linebackers have given themselves a tough act to follow after becoming one of the franchise’s best duos in their first season in Green Bay. Their 25½ combined sacks were the most by a pair of Packers pass rushers since sacks became an official statistic in 1982, and they’re the first tandem in team history with at least a dozen each (Za’Darius had 13½, Preston 12).
The added twist this year is 2019 first-round draft pick Rashan Gary, another edge rusher, looks poised for a big second-year jump and an increased role. Gary had two sacks as a rookie last year in limited playing time, coming back for Year 2 with a rebuilt body and seemingly endless energy on the practice field.
Za’Darius mentioned defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has packages with all three pass rushers on the field together, and he was impressed seeing Gary take a lot of his reps with the first-team defense early in training camp while Za’Darius recovered from an undisclosed injury.
“I think as a trio, that’s coming,” Za’Darius said. “R.G. has been doing a lot of great things. He’s explosive, man, and coming on. And I really think it could be a trio. We might have to change his last name.”
Another change the Smiths are projecting is with the run defense, which suffered a huge letdown in the NFC title game at San Francisco last January. For as great a season as they had, the Smiths haven’t shied away from taking their share of blame for the rough ending, nor the responsibility to fix it themselves.
“A lot of times we were just out of position to make plays and we were doing stuff that we weren’t coached to do,” Preston said. “They capitalized off those mistakes that we were making.”
As a new and unusual season begins Sunday in Minnesota with no fans in the stands, the Smiths will be looked to as leaders to energize Green Bay’s defense. Their sack celebrations made for a lot of highlights last season, and for the most part they had Head Coach Matt LaFleur’s blessing.
They served as a form of on-field leadership that meshed with the off-field leadership, which helped create a close-knit club.
“I think it goes back to who they are as people, their personalities,” LaFleur said. “They like to have fun. When they’re doing their thing on the football field, it is fun to watch. When they get those sack dances going or whatever it is, that’s certainly good for us.”