GREEN BAY, Wis. – More than four months after he played in his one and only game this season, Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith returned to practice on Wednesday.
A Pro Bowler in 2019 and 2020 after positing a total of 26 sacks those two seasons, this year has gone down the drain because of a back injury that ultimately required surgery. Could one of the NFL’s top pass rushers potentially be on the field for the divisional playoffs in a week-and-a-half? And what does coach Matt LaFleur need to see during three practices this week and three more next week?
“That’s a tough question to give you a specific answer right now,” LaFleur said before Wednesday’s practice. “We’re just trying to get him to a position where we feel comfortable, where he (can) go out there and compete at a high level.”
Moreover, having practiced only once during training camp, the Packers need to make sure he’s up to speed mentally. Last week, outside linebackers coach Mike Smith said Za’Darius Smith has been in all the meetings and preparing like he’s going to play. Still, knowing what to do in the comfort of the film room is different than knowing what to do in the heat of the moment.
“He hasn’t been really in the system other than one game, so we’ve got to make sure he understands his job responsibility, first and foremost,” LaFleur said. “As we’ve seen so many times throughout the course of the season, when we have all 11 guys on the same page doing their responsibility and owning their roles, I think our defense can be pretty good. And if you have some undisciplined play, then you get beat. I think we just want to reacclimate him into practice and see how that goes and see how it all meshes before we solidify our plan. Luckily, we not only have this week but we have next week to continue to get him up to speed.”
Over the last three seasons, Smith is 12th in the league in sacks. And that’s with one cameo performance in Week 1 against the Saints in which he didn’t lay a finger on Jameis Winston aside from a questionable roughing-the-passer penalty that erased an interception. While his pressure count dipped last year, he had a career-high four forced fumbles.
With the re-emergence of Preston Smith, the ascendance of Rashan Gary and the dynamic play of Kenny Clark, adding Za’Darius Smith to the group could make for a powerful pass rush. Among edge rushers, Gary was second with 81 pressures and Preston Smith was ninth with 82, according to Pro Football Focus. Among interior defenders, Clark was fourth with 64 pressures.
Because the Packers aren’t playing this week, they didn’t have to issue an injury report. Of note, quarterback Aaron Rodgers practiced, a sure sign that his broken toe is feeling much better.
Cornerback Jaire Alexander (shoulder), running back Aaron Jones (knee), linebacker De’Vondre Campbell (elbow), receiver Randall Cobb (core) and right tackle Billy Turner (knee), all of whom did not play on Sunday at Detroit, practiced, too.
Left tackle David Bakhtiari, who made his season debut with 27 snaps at Detroit, did not practice but that was for “load management” reasons. Receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who dropped out of the Detroit game after 15 snaps (back), and defensive tackle Kingsley Keke, who was inactive (illness), did not practice.
“To be out at practice and see 55 (Za’Darius Smith) running around and see 18 (Cobb) running around and 23 (Alexander) out there, 77 (Turner), you know, like, whew. Feels pretty good having these guys back,” Rodgers said. “The excitement level definitely goes up and the energy is right where it needs to be.”