GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers are placing outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith on short-term injured reserve in hopes of getting the Pro Bowl pass rusher past a troublesome back injury.
“We’re going to have to shut him down for a while,” coach Matt LaFleur said before Friday’s practice. “It’s a matter of do you keep him in a limited role or do you shut him down for a while and try to get him healthy and get him up to the snap count that we’d like him to be (and) just like he’s been in the past, because he’s such an impact player.”
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 last week, practiced on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday (but not Friday), and played in 18 snaps on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints.
Smith will miss at least the next three games, starting with Monday night against the Detroit Lions. The hope is Smith will come back healthy and able to handle a heavier workload than he received vs. Jacksonville.
LaFleur said the team is attempting to fill the roster spot by raiding another team’s practice squad for an edge defender.
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The Packers will have to lean heavily on the quality duo of Preston Smith and Rashan Gary. But the depth has taken an enormous blow. Behind those two are unproven Jonathan Garvin and Chauncey Rivers.
“He’s a disruptive force. He’s a game-wrecker,” LaFleur said of Smith. “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.”
While Smith had another impactful season in 2020, he wasn’t as great as he was in 2019. In his first year in Green Bay after signing a four-year, $64 million contract, Smith recorded 13.5 sacks and led the NFL with 93 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. In 2020, Smith had 12.5 sacks. On the downside, he ranked 17th with 51 pressures. On the bright side, he forced four fumbles – as many as his first five NFL seasons combined.
Even with his 26 sacks the past two seasons, the Packers entered this season needing more out of Smith. That goes beyond sacks and pressures during the regular season but in the playoffs. In two divisional-round wins, according to PFF, Smith had three sacks and 19 quarterback pressures. In two NFC Championship Games, he had zero sacks and one pressure. In the big moments, Smith must deliver a better pass rush and a more determined run defense.
The question is whether Smith will be in position to make much of a game-changing impact at all and whether he’ll be able to build his brand. When “Madden NFL” posted its top-10 edge rushers, Smith ranked 10th despite being third in the league in sacks the past two years.
“They’re still snubbing me,” Smith said in June of lists such as the one at Pro Football Focus, which had him 13th among edge rushers. “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.”