GREEN BAY – Mike Pettine and Mike Smith had a homework assignment of sorts this past offseason.
Prior to the start of free agency, the Packers defensive coordinator and his outside linebackers coach turned on the film and evaluated the long list of edge rushers who were about to hit the open market on March 13.
Two players – Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith – stood out to Green Bay’s coaches from the start.
“Za’Darius was a guy that just jumped off the tape, and not far behind was Preston,” Pettine said. “We would have been thrilled with one of those two guys.”
Instead, General Manager Brian Gutekunst gave them both.
The Smiths, two of the higher-profile free agents the Packers have signed over the last decade, gave Green Bay an immediate return on its investment during last Thursday’s regular-season opener against the Chicago Bears.
The two wreaked havoc up front in combining for 16 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. The duo officially tallied eight tackles, four quarterback hits, 2½ sacks, and collaborated on the defense’s final play to close out a 10-3 road win over the Bears.
While Za’Darius’ initial pressure crumbled the pocket, Preston came free for a fourth-down sack of Chicago quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, putting an exclamation point on the fifth multiple-sack game of his career.
“He scares a lot of guys,” said Preston of Za’Darius. “Because normally guys, if they weren’t scared, they might go against somebody and come off and try to block me, but he had the guy petrified, and he stayed on him, and I came around. And I tell him thank you all the time.”
Za’Darius (6-4, 272) and Preston (6-5, 265) possess similar builds and skill sets, which allows Pettine to move them all around the defensive front on third downs. The two ran several stunts together against the Bears, with one lined up off the edge and the other rushing from a three-point stance.
Developing chemistry hasn’t been difficult due in part to their history. The two first met when Za’Darius, then a junior college standout, went on an official visit at Mississippi State. His host was Preston, a three-year starter for the Bulldogs.
Although Za’Darius eventually committed to Kentucky, he and Preston were reunited during the pre-draft process in 2015, grouped together at the Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine due to their last names.
The two stayed connected after Washington drafted Preston in the second round and Baltimore took Za’Darius in the fourth. From Za’Darius’ viewpoint, it’s not hard to figure out why he and Preston became such fast friends – “He’s a Georgia guy and I’m an Alabama guy. Two country guys, man.”
Over time, their conversations have shifted from not just football but to life, in general. They’ve also developed a tongue-in-cheek habit of conducting joint interviews.
“Me and Za’Darius are like brothers,” Preston said. “Just being on the same team with somebody you can relate to, somebody you’ve known for a long time, is great. Because it’s easy for us to communicate and not shy away from talking about a lot of things with each other.”
This year has marked new territory in Za’Darius’ NFL career. Primarily a rotational rusher in Baltimore, the fifth-year veteran has now shifted into an every-down role in playing 67 of 71 snaps last Thursday.
The extra reps didn’t appear to diminish his effectiveness, with Pro Football Focus crediting Za’Darius with 10 pressures individually. In order to sustain his production, Za’Darius outlined his comprehensive recovery plan after games, consisting of massages, the cold tub and other rehab techniques.
“It’s just new for me because I’m playing more snaps now,” said Za’Darius, who played two-thirds of the defensive snaps last year in Baltimore. “The past four years, I was a guy who played 25-35 snaps. To get in this game, I think I played 68-70 snaps. That does make a big difference.”
With the Packers set to host Minnesota in their home opener Sunday, there’s hope last Thursday was just the start of big things to come for both Smiths.
Throw in safety Adrian Amos, who had a late interception against his former team last Thursday, and the team feels it has added three accomplished defensive veterans all entering their prime.
As much of a positive first impression as the trio made in Chicago, Za’Darius Smith doesn’t believe they’ve even touched the surface of their collective potential.
“I don’t think we made our mark yet,” he said. “We still have a long way to go. I think it was a great addition to bring all three of us in. I think this was a one out of a million time they got free agents; to have that is big. But just to be here with my new teammates, I’m happy, I’m proud and I’m glad to be around a great group of guys.”