World’s Best Preview: Oh, Brother, They’re Double Trouble

Bill Huber

GREEN BAY, Wis. – It’s fitting that, as Preston Smith prepares to face his former team, Za’Darius Smith’s eye-popping pressure numbers are an equally big story line this week.

Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, the Green Bay Packers’ dominant outside linebacker tandem, are joined at the hip. “The Smith Brothers” have done their midweek and postgame interviews together all season. More importantly, they’ve frequently met at the quarterback together and raised each other’s games to new heights.

The Smiths are the only tandem in the NFL with 10-plus sacks. Preston Smith, who never had more than eight sacks during four seasons with Washington, heads into Sunday’s home game against the Redskins with a team-leading 10.5 sacks. Za’Darius Smith, a part-time starter in Baltimore who had a career-high 8.5 sacks last season, has 10 sacks this season.

Throughout the season, first-year outside linebackers coach Mike Smith has stressed the importance of quarterback pressure over quarterback sacks. The Smith Brothers have been bringing the heat all season.

According to Pro Football Focus, Za’Darius Smith is third in the NFL with 70 total pressures. According to the official league stats, he is tied for the league lead with Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt with 28 quarterback hits.

“I didn’t know that. For real?” a wide-eyed Za’Darius Smith said on Thursday. “I didn’t know that. That’s awesome, right. So, why don’t y’all make a story out of that?”

Here’s the story, Z.

Za’Darius Smith started the season strong with a career-high 10 total pressures in the Week 1 win at Chicago. He’s been even better of late. In the last three games against Carolina, San Francisco and the Giants, he’s recorded 25 pressures. That includes a new career-high dozen against the Panthers and eight more against New York.

“I’m going to continue to do what I’m supposed to do,” he said. “When they brought me in here, they expected that. Because that was something the GM told me when I first got here, when I signed, like, it’s not what you’ve done when you were in Baltimore but what you’re going to do for this organization. So, then to come here and still have high numbers like that with quarterback hits – trying to get my sacks up but quarterback hits and hurries affect the quarterback, too.”

Between talent, age and leadership, general manager Brian Gutekunst had ample reason to open the vault to Smith in free agency with a four-year, $66 million contract. Another reason is Smith’s versatility. Pro Football Focus lists 12 different positions that Smith has lined up at this season. That includes eight against the Giants alone. Does he have a favorite?

“Right, left, middle, center,” Za’Darius Smith said with a smile on Friday as Preston Smith chatted on his phone before they joined Fox for a pregame production meeting. “Nah, more in the middle because it’s a shorter route to the quarterback.”

Smith’s versatility caught the attention of Redskins interim coach Bill Callahan, who has watched his rookie quarterback, Dwayne Haskins, be sacked 20 times in four starts.

"I think it was a really great pickup that they had in the offseason,” Callahan told reporters in Washington on Friday. “He lines up just about anywhere and everywhere. So, he’s going to play the end positions right and left, he’s going to get over the guards, he’s played off the line of scrimmage. So, they’re using him in a lot of different capacities. It’s really impressive to watch his ability to rush from those various alignments that give him a uniqueness that I haven’t seen in a long time. Haven’t seen a rusher like him bring the combination of power, speed, length, close, and then get over the guards and show edge ability and quick hands and power, as well. It’s pretty rare to see a guy like him and his abilities to dominate at the different positions and levels that he’s been featured at.”

Not only does Smith have a career high in sacks, but he’s also got a career high in quarterback hits and quarterback pressures. It’s a continuation of his upward trajectory. As a fourth-round pick by Baltimore in 2015, he had 17 pressures, according to PFF. That number increased to 26 in 2016, 40 in 2017 and 61 in 2018. According to the official stats, Smith’s QB hits count has swelled from seven as a rookie and four in 2016 to 16 in 2017 and 25 last season.

With four games to go, Smith is on a track for 13 sacks, 93 pressures (PFF’s data) and 37 hits (NFL data). All of Green Bay’s outside linebackers combined last season for 35 hits, with Clay Matthews and Kyler Fackrell leading the way with 12 apiece.

Smith’s not surprised – even by this incredible level of success.

“No, man, I knew I could do it,” he said. “I had to wait my turn in Baltimore. I played behind guys like Elvis Dumervil, Terrell Suggs. To get my opportunity and to come somewhere and be a starter, I feel like I’ve been at it for the longest but I just didn’t get an opportunity to really develop and show it.”

Meanwhile, Preston Smith has reached new heights, too. A second-round pick in 2015, he spent his first four seasons in Washington as Pro Bowler Ryan Kerrigan’s sidekick. He put up good numbers with eight sacks in 2015, 4.5 in 2016, eight in 2017 and four in 2018.

Gutekunst opened the vault for Preston Smith, as well, handing him a four-year, $52 million contract. From the outside, that seemed like a lot of money for a guy who didn’t dominate while teamed with a premier player.

“With Preston, when I was watching him last year, he affected the quarterback,” Mike Smith said during the bye. “I think sometimes sacks get misleading. People don’t realize how hard it is to get 10 sacks. Tamba Hali is the second-greatest all-time for the Chiefs and I think he did it three times. It’s hard to get double digits. I watched him affecting the quarterback. I knew he was a smart kid – I knew some guys who coached him before. That’s what I watch for and I saw. It’s really the same thing with Z in Baltimore. He had 8.5 sacks last year for Baltimore but I saw him affecting the quarterback all the way across the line. That’s when you get excited. You see these big, long guys that can rush.”

To the coach’s point, even with a disappointing sack total last season, his 53 quarterback pressures were 13 more than in any other season, according to PFF. He’s got 42 this season, putting him on track for 14 sacks and 56 pressures.

It’s interesting to note that while Preston Smith has set a career high in sacks, Kerrigan’s production has plunged from back-to-back seasons of 13 sacks to just 4.5 this season.

During the joint media session on Thursday, Preston Smith said he was going to treat this game like any other.

“It’s the most important game right now because it’s the next game on the schedule,” he said. “I’m preparing like I would for a regular week, getting ready to go out there and put my best foot forward like I usually do every week and be the best teammate I can for the team.”

Za’Darius Smith wasn’t buying the clichés spewed by his teammate and friend.

“You didn’t say that in the locker room,” he interjected. “He was saying more excited to play them in the locker room now he’s acting like he’s not. I don’t know why he’s not. You’re not really?”

“I’m always excited, man,” Preston Smith replied. “I get to go out there and play with my brothers, man. The Smiths Brothers get to go out there and wreak havoc again.”

Frequently during their joint interviews, Za’Darius Smith will punctuate one of Preston Smith’s answers with a “Great answer.”

Not this time.

Asked if he’d prefer one sack or five quarterback hits, Preston Smith said he’d take the sack. Za’Darius Smith – who had five quarterback hits against the Giants – said he’d take the hits.

“I could’ve predicted that’s how that round of questions would have gone,” defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said with a smile.

Preston Smith had a logical reason for his answer.

“You have a chance to get a fumble on a sack,” he said.

Za’Darius Smith had a logical reason for his answer, too, though his unofficial brother didn’t agree with it.

“He’s thrown the ball when you get a hit,” Preston Smith said.

“Five quarterback hits will affect the quarterback more throughout the game than one sack, I feel like,” Za’Darius Smith said.

“That was a good answer.”