Fuel for the fire? Packers' Smith Bros. have found plenty

Pass-rushing tandem not thrilled with recent league ranking

Linebackers Za'Darius and Preston Smith

GREEN BAY – Some NFL players don't care about outside opinions. Others get highly motivated by perceived snubs.

Count the Packers' Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith among the latter.

In their first tandem interview of 2020 on Thursday, via Zoom, the Smiths brought up a recent ranking of NFL pass-rushing duos published by cbssports.com and, well, let's just say they didn't agree with its conclusions.

"I still think we're underrated," Za'Darius said.

"It definitely added fuel to the fire," Preston said.

The rankings had the Smiths, who combined for 25½ sacks from 2019 (plus four more in the playoffs), outside the top 10 in the league. They were ranked 12th, and actually third in their own division, with the NFC North's Danielle Hunter and Yannick Ngakoue from Minnesota second overall, followed by Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn from Chicago third.

Taking nothing away from their rivals' recognition, the Smiths made sure to say they noticed. To be fair, they both were ranked on the NFL Network's "Top 100 Players" list, with Za'Darius at No. 48 and Preston at No. 63, but clearly they care more about the collective effort getting dissed.

"We feel like if you're going to mention duos, you should mention the Smith Bros.," Preston said. "Because we cause havoc out there every week. How can you talk about duos and not mention us? That's how we feel. But it's fuel to the fire. We're going to come out and keep on improving, keep on doing our thing, and take it to another level this year."

"So they don't forget on the next list."

Added Za'Darius: "We've still got that same mindset and that same hunger to go out there and be the best duo as possible."

The two outside linebackers have given themselves a tough act to follow after becoming one of the franchise's best duos in their first season in Green Bay. Their 25½ combined sacks were the most by a pair of Packers pass rushers since sacks became an official statistic in 1982, and they're the first tandem in team history with at least a dozen each (Za'Darius had 13½, Preston 12).

The added twist this year is 2019 first-round draft pick Rashan Gary, another edge rusher, looks poised for a big second-year jump and an increased role. Gary had two sacks as a rookie last year in limited playing time, coming back for Year 2 with a rebuilt body and seemingly endless energy on the practice field.

Za'Darius mentioned defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has packages with all three pass rushers on the field together, and he was impressed seeing Gary take a lot of his reps with the first-team defense early in training camp while Za'Darius recovered from an undisclosed injury.

"I think as a trio, that's coming," Za'Darius said. "R.G. has been doing a lot of great things. He's explosive, man, and coming on. And I really think it could be a trio. We might have to change his last name."

Another change the Smiths are projecting is with the run defense, which suffered a huge letdown in the NFC title game at San Francisco last January. For as great a season as they had, the Smiths haven't shied away from taking their share of blame for the rough ending, nor the responsibility to fix it themselves.

"A lot of times we were just out of position to make plays and we were doing stuff that we weren't coached to do," Preston said. "They capitalized off those mistakes that we were making."

As a new and unusual season begins Sunday in Minnesota with no fans in the stands, the Smiths will be looked to as leaders to energize Green Bay's defense. Their sack celebrations made for a lot of highlights last season, and for the most part they had Head Coach Matt LaFleur's blessing.

They served as a form of on-field leadership that meshed with the off-field leadership, which helped create a close-knit club.

"I think it goes back to who they are as people, their personalities," LaFleur said. "They like to have fun. When they're doing their thing on the football field, it is fun to watch. When they get those sack dances going or whatever it is, that's certainly good for us."

If anything, those celebrations this year will be for their own teammates, with no crowd reaction to provide the usual emotional boost.

Last year, some of Za'Darius' celebrations featured flashing a message on a T-shirt underneath his jersey after making a big play. Once it was to show support for a family member of a team staffer who was dealing with a serious illness. Another time it was in response to getting snubbed in the Pro Bowl voting (even though he eventually was selected to go as an alternate).

This year? Don't be surprised if he has a T-shirt with a No. 12 on it, and it won't be a tribute to his favorite quarterback.

"We're going to continue to feed off each other," Preston said. "Because if I see Z make a play, I'm going to be just as hyped as he is, and same with the secondary. They're just as hyped when they see us get sacks and do our dance or we celebrate. Guys feed off each other.

"So we've just got to bring that contagious – that good, contagious energy – and make sure we come out there with the juice."

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