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Three’s Not a Crowd at Outside Linebacker

The Packers figure to get Za'Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Rashan Gary on the field together as much as possible.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – Last season, four of the six most-used personnel groupings under former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine included outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Rashan Gary on the field at the same time.

The Green Bay Packers have a new defensive coordinator with Joe Barry, but those three-OLB packages could remain a staple.

“I don’t want to get too much into what we’re doing, but I think you saw a lot of it the last couple years and Joe saw some stuff that we were doing,” outside linebackers coach Mike Smith said on Wednesday, a break in Week 1 of organized team activities.

A goal for any coordinator is to get his best players on the field as often as possible. Za’Darius Smith, who had 26 sacks and two Pro Bowl selections in his two years with the Packers, and Gary, the 2019 first-round pick who had a strong second season, obviously are two of the team’s top defenders. And perhaps an incentives-filled contract will light a fire under Preston Smith, who went from 12 sacks in 2019 to four in 2020.

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“One thing that fires me up about my room, it’s not just those three guys,” Mike Smith said as part of an epic answer in the accompanying video. “I got a lot of guys that can play in my room and you can do a lot of good things with them. Everybody’s asking, ‘You’ve got all these players. How are you going to get them on the field?’ Well, you need that many pass rushers and guys of their size and strength. But you’re exactly right, that’s a benefit. I was actually thinking about it this morning how grateful I am for my room. I got a bunch of tough, mean, nasty dudes. And you’re probably sitting back saying, ‘Well, that’s football.’ Well, I’ll tell you what, times have changed.”

If Preston Smith rebounds, the Packers will have a terrific trio at a position group in which only two normally get on the field.

The Packers like big, physical players on the edges but Preston Smith got too big last season, and it impacted his play. Mike Smith acknowledged Preston Smith is “a lot leaner” than he was for the start of training camp last year. Perhaps it will pay off – literally. If he matches the dozen sacks he had in 2019, he’ll collect $3.2 million in incentives. If he notches14 sacks, that would increase to $4.4 million.

“To play defensive football in the National Football League right now, you’ve got to be able to run,” Barry said. “Of course, as a coach, you want your players in the front to be as big as possible. But you don’t want them to be so big where now they can’t move, they’re not athletic, they can’t change direction.”

Gary was the 12th pick of the 2019 draft but didn’t play to that lofty status as a rookie. It was a different story in 2020. With strength, explosion and a relentless motor, Gary recorded 39 pressures while averaging about 30 snaps per game, according to Pro Football Focus. In 2019, as he fought for playing time behind the Smith Bros. and Kyler Fackrell, Gary recorded 15 pressures while averaging 15 snaps per game.

For Mike Smith, his patient approach was rewarded.

“I’ve been here long enough where if you force a guy to get in the game early enough in his career and force him to play when he’s not ready, you can do a lot of damage,” he said. “I was blessed enough to have some good depth that first year where I could allow Rashan to have that progression. You see that progression from the first year to the second year, so I expect a big jump in Year 3. Sometimes guys, they panic because people are writing certain things or people are saying things. You’re like, ‘Oh, well, I better just go throw him out there.’ I have 100 percent confidence in Rashan because he’s always going to work. He came in in ridiculous shape again.”