GREEN BAY, Wis. – When the Packers sent Za’Darius Smith to injured reserve two weeks ago, the goal was to finally get him past the back injury that had bothered him since before the start of training camp.
“Why not try to get him as healthy as possible so we can have him more readily available,” coach Matt LaFleur said on Sept. 17.
So much for hopefully.
As reported by Mike Garafolo and Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, Smith had back surgery this week. Smith will be out an “extended period of time,” Garafolo said, with the “hope” he can return this season.
A source in confirming the news said Smith’s potential return for a possible playoff run is just that. Potential. It is not the expectation or something the team is counting on. The Packers will need Preston Smith and Rashan Gary to crank up their play. Anything Za’Darius Smith can provide would be a bonus.
The surgery explains why Smith was cheering on the team from the sideline for the Week 2 game against Detroit and was inside the Don Hutson Center for the start of practices before the Week 3 game against San Francisco but was not seen at practice this week.
Had Smith’s back felt better, he could have returned to the lineup for next week’s game at Cincinnati.
Instead, he’s out indefinitely with no guarantee he’ll return this season or even play another game for the Packers. In an effort to get under this year’s salary cap, the Packers restructured Smith’s deal. That increased his cap charge for 2022, the final season of his four-year, $66 million contract, to $28.13 million. With the Packers about $44 million over next year’s cap, the team could move on and save $15.75 million.
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Smith practiced only once during training camp. After that one practice, in which he did only individual drills, Smith missed the next three weeks. He returned before the season-opening game against New Orleans, practicing three of the four days and playing 18 snaps against the Saints.
The loss of Smith, who had 26 sacks the past two seasons, has been profound. Entering Week 4, the Packers are 22nd in sack percentage and, according to SportRadar, are 21st in pressures.
The Packers have four sacks in three games. The starting outside linebackers, Preston Smith (one sack) and Gary (one-half sack), have combined for 1 1/2 sacks. Za’Darius Smith had five sacks through four games in each of his first two seasons.
“[Za'Darius] not being here, we all have a heavy weight to wear on our shoulders—me and Rashan and everybody else in the room,” Preston Smith said on Thursday. “We know what’s expected of us, with or without [Za'Darius]. Even when he’s here, he knows what’s expected of him. We’ve got to play at a high level. And we’ve got to do what it takes to help our team out and make sure we make impact plays to help the defense out and put us in great situations throughout the game.”
Of the 106 edge defenders with at least 28 pass rushes this season, Gary ranks 19th and Preston Smith 51st in ProFootballFocus.com’s pass rushing productivity, which measures sacks, hits and hurries per pass-rushing snap. Top backup Jonathan Garvin, who also has a half-sack, is tied for 41st. Gary, Preston Smith, Garvin, Chauncey Rivers and Za’Darius Smith have combined for 25 pressures. Las Vegas’s Maxx Crosby has that many by himself.
While Preston Smith is off to a strong start, it’s different for everyone on the front without Za’Darius Smith capturing so much attention.
“I would expect him playing like this and doing what he’s been doing if Z was here because I think he has that type of ability and is that type of player,” defensive coordinator Joe Barry said of Preston Smith this week. “He’s been doing a great job. We obviously expect a lot out of him. He’s a hell of a player. He can do those things consistently.”
In 2019, Za’Darius Smith recorded 13.5 sacks and led the NFL with 93 pressures, according to PFF. In 2020, he had 12.5 sacks. While he fell to 17th with 51 pressures, he forced four fumbles—as many as his first five NFL seasons combined.
“He’s a disruptive force. He’s a game-wrecker,” LaFleur said of Smith last month. “I think he’s a guy the offense has to account for on every play, where he’s at, where he’s aligned, how are we going to protect against a guy like that? If you give him those one-on-one matchups, he can make you pay. He’s proven his worth over the last couple years.”