GREEN BAY, Wis. – Entering the 2021 NFL season, Za’Darius Smith, Aaron Donald and T.J. Watt are the only players coming off back-to-back seasons of at least 12 sacks.
With 13.5 sacks in 2019 and 12.5 sacks in 2020, Smith has 26 sacks in his two seasons with the Green Bay Packers, the most since sacks became an official stat in 1982. In 2019, he led the NFL in quarterback pressures. In 2020, he tied the team record with at least one sack in 10 games and forced four fumbles, the latter matching the total from his first five seasons.
And yet, in the ProFootballFocus.com ranking of the top 32 edge rushers in the NFL, Smith ranked 13th.
“They’re still snubbing me,” Smith said last month of such lists. “It is what it is. I feel like it adds fuel to the fire, and I’m going to continue to prove myself. I think when I came out of Baltimore, I led the team in sacks and pressures and hits. And then I came here and had a dominant year, and it was basically another snub year. And after last year, I was (fourth) in the league in sacks, (third) with forced fumbles, and they’re still snubbing me. But it is what it is. Like I said, it’s going to continue to add fuel to the fire, and I’m just going to continue to prove myself each and every year.”
Players pounce on motivation wherever they can find it. In reality, Smith was selected to the NFC Pro Bowl team each of the last two seasons, so it’s not as if he’s been totally ignored. But he has somewhat quietly emerged as a premier defensive player. No, he isn’t always a rugged run defender. Yes, he’s vanished in both NFC Championship Games. But it’s impossible to knock the regular-season production.
In his two seasons with the Packers, he’s tied with Donald for third with 26 sacks and ranks second with 60 quarterback hits. Of the 18 players with more than 16 sacks the past two seasons, Smith is fourth in tackles, so it’s not as if he’s a one-trick pony.
Outside linebackers coach Mike Smith is all too happy that Smith would rather focus on PFF’s rankings, which he screenshotted and posted to his Instagram, than, say, USA Today’s, where he ranked fourth.
“Maybe that’s what ticks off Z,” Mike Smith said. “He sees something like that, it keeps him hungry. Some guys, it’s Super Bowls; some guys, it’s money. Whatever it may be, you’ve got to find that whatever makes you ticked and makes you pissed off. My dad used to say, ‘You’ve got to find a reason to hate your opponent.’ Sometimes, you look for a reason.”
Smith was a movable chess piece for former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and will be again under new defensive coordinator Joe Barry. That will allow Smith to take advantage of potential mismatches while creating opportunities to get him on the field with Preston Smith and Rashan Gary.
“Obviously, he watched film from last year and saw how dominant I was at doing that, but the new D-coordinator is bringing some good stuff to this defense,” Za’Darius Smith said. “I feel like they know where I’m dominant at. Basically they’re going to put me in the best situations to win.”