Sacking the Myth of Preston Smith’s Usage With Packers

Green Bay Packers defensive end Preston Smith is excited to “get after the quarterback a whole lot more” under new defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley. But first, let’s address one fallacy.
Preston Smith celebrates a sack at Minnesota.
Preston Smith celebrates a sack at Minnesota. / Dan Powers/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin /
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – Like everyone else, Preston Smith likes the scheme and direction taken by new Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley.

“Yeah, man. Finally, I’m out here rushing more, and I get to get after the quarterback a whole lot more,” Smith said at the conclusion of Packers minicamp on Wednesday. “I just love the system.”

Of course, Smith is referencing being used in coverage at times by former defensive coordinator Joe Barry.

In one of the more embarrassing moments of last season, Davante Adams roasted Smith at the line of scrimmage for a 21-yard gain to set up the decisive touchdown in the Raiders’ 17-13 win in Week 5. It wasn’t as embarrassing for Smith as it was for Barry, who was questioned about a call that asked a 270-pound pass rusher to cover one of the NFL’s all-time great receivers.

However, Smith’s extensive use in coverage is more fiction than fact

According to Pro Football Focus, Smith dropped into coverage 41 times last season. That was 31st among NFL edge defenders. Among those who played more coverage snaps than Smith:

- Pittsburgh Steelers star T.J. Watt, the 2021 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and four-time All-Pro, who led the league with 19 sacks. Watt played 15 more coverage snaps than Smith in 2023.

- The Jacksonville Jaguars’ Josh Allen, a two-time Pro Bowler who was second with 17.5 sacks. Allen played 49 more coverage snaps than Smith.

- The Los Angeles Chargers’ Khalil Mack, an eight-time Pro Bowler who was fourth with 17 sacks and ranks sixth among active players with 101.5 sacks. Mack played 12 more coverage snaps than Smith.

- The New York Giants’ Kayvon Thibodeaux, who finished just outside the top 10 with 11.5 sacks. Thibodeaux played 43 more coverage snaps than Smith.

- The New York Jets’ Haason Reddick, a two-time Pro Bowler who had 50.5 sacks the last four seasons, including 11 last year with the Eagles. Reddick played one more coverage snap than Smith.

- The Carolina Panthers’ Brian Burns, a two-time Pro Bowler with 46 sacks in five seasons, including eight last year. Burns played 28 more coverage snaps than Smith.

Adding to the urban legend:

- Under Barry, Smith played 41 coverage snaps in 2023, 41 in 2022 and 40 in 2021.

- Under the previous defensive coordinator, Mike Pettine, Smith played 111 coverage snaps in 2020 and 133 in 2019.

- During his four seasons in Washington, Smith played 51 coverage snaps in 2018, 72 in 2017, 47 in 2016 and 19 as a rookie in 2015.

- Taking Year 1 out of the equation, the lowest coverage numbers of Smith’s career all came under Barry.

Regardless of the myth-making, Smith likes what he’s seen from Hafley.

“I was already impressed with Jeff Hafley, because I called a friend when he first signed who knew him very well, and that’s Richard Sherman,” Smith said. “He spoke highly of him. Sherm’s a good friend of mine. If one of my friends loves you, I love you. I was always impressed with Jeff Hafley and his system and what they were telling me about it before we went to camp.

“Now actually running those plays and getting out there on the field with these guys, I’m loving the system a whole lot more.”

At age 31 – he’ll turn 32 on Nov. 17 – Smith is the oldest player on the roster. He’s also one of the best. He had eight sacks last season, making him one of 11 players in the NFL with eight-plus sacks the last three seasons.

Based on conversations with Sherman, he believes he’ll thrive in the attacking system that Hafley installed over the past month.

“He was just saying he’s a guy who’s going to put all the players in position to make plays,” Smith said. “He’s going to utilize our strengths and the players’ strengths to make sure we go out there and play successful. I think that’s a good thing when you’re coming into a new system or you’re playing a new system.

“We’ve got a lot of talented guys on every level, and I feel like with the calls he’s making and from the progress I see in practice, that there’s going to be a lot of guys making a lot of plays this year, and Green Bay’s defense is going to be causing a lot of plays and helping the offense be in position.”

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Bill Huber

BILL HUBER

Bill Huber, who has covered the Green Bay Packers since 2008, is the publisher of Packer Central, a Sports Illustrated channel. E-mail: packwriter2002@yahoo.com History: Huber took over Packer Central in August 2019. Twitter: https://twitter.com/BillHuberNFL Background: Huber graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he played on the football team, in 1995. He worked in newspapers in Reedsburg, Wisconsin Dells and Shawano before working at The Green Bay News-Chronicle and Green Bay Press-Gazette from 1998 through 2008. With The News-Chronicle, he won several awards for his commentaries and page design. In 2008, he took over as editor of Packer Report Magazine, which was founded by Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Nitschke, and PackerReport.com. In 2019, he took over the new Sports Illustrated site Packer Central, which he has grown into one of the largest sites in the Sports Illustrated Media Group.