Getting a handle on Za’Darius Smith no easy task

LB Za'Darius Smith
LB Za'Darius Smith

GREEN BAY – Za'Darius Smith is going to keep everybody guessing.

The Packers’ new outside linebacker and defensive leader developed a good reputation as an interior rusher with Baltimore, but he’s not about to call any spot his best.

“I think I can rush from anywhere, man,” Smith said.

Indeed, he’s been winning reps on the edge, too, beating All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari in a couple of one-on-ones during training camp with an awfully effective bull rush. But he has no interest in being identified by that, either.

“Nah, that’s not my go-to move,” he said.

Welcome to what makes Smith such an intriguing player his first year in a Green Bay uniform. The high-profile free agent will line up anywhere and attack in any way it takes to get into the backfield.

This is known – he’s been tough to stop, no matter his starting point or technique. Day after day in practice, Smith makes his presence felt, lending credence to the projection from General Manager Brian Gutekunst back in March upon signing him that his career-best 8½ sacks last year with the Ravens were just the beginning.

It’s only been a week and a half of training camp practices, but the anticipation for what Smith can do, and what he’ll mean to coordinator Mike Pettine’s defense, is building in earnest.

“He’s everything we thought he was going to be, and I can’t say enough about the person, either,” Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. “He brings so much leadership to our defense and he’s been a lot of fun to be around. I think he raises the level of everybody around him.”

He’s made LaFleur’s offense start to account for him more during 11-on-11 work, with a tight end kept in to chip block on occasion now. Smith admitted he was caught off-guard by the tactic in Sunday’s practice because he hadn’t seen it early in camp, and he got knocked down at the snap. But he’ll be aware of it now.

LaFleur knew plenty about Smith before he joined the first-year head coach’s squad, too. Against a Tennessee offense coordinated by LaFleur last season, Smith had three sacks against the Titans in a Ravens win, and recalling the memory puts a smile on each’s face for different reasons – Smith’s because it was the best game of his career, LaFleur’s because he doesn’t have to face him anymore.

Kidding aside, LaFleur’s remark about Smith’s leadership can’t be understated, though. Smith feels he’s a natural leader who always had older, polished pros in front of him with the Ravens in Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and C.J. Mosley. He respected them, and his place, but he’s in a different world now.

Green Bay’s revamped defense has lost Clay Matthews, Nick Perry and Mike Daniels in the last five months, and Smith not only has embraced the responsibility that has fallen on him to lead, he wanted it from Day 1.

“Most definitely,” he said. “This is Year 5 for me, man. It’s my time.”

He’s taken first-round draft pick Rashan Gary under his wing a bit, showing him some of the extra duties that come with being an outside linebacker. Smith and Gary were both down linemen in college, so Smith already has made the transition Gary did.

The rookie from Michigan made a solid play in pass coverage Sunday, dropping off the line and getting his hands on an Aaron Rodgers pass. He almost picked it off, and probably should have.

“I told him, ‘Aaron gave you a gift – you’ve got to take it,’” Smith said.

For his part, Smith will take any assignment that comes his way.

The Packers took to Ray Nitschke Field for training camp No. 9.

At 6-4, 272, he’s big enough to set the edge against the run and quick enough to get around the corner. Rushing from the inside, he believes speed is his biggest asset against bulkier interior linemen, but it takes power in his first step to be able to use that speed to his advantage.

“Your get off,” Smith said of what matters most when he changes alignment from outside to inside. “If you don’t have get off and you’re a smaller guy, he’s going to eat you up every time.

“You just have to have that pop. If you don’t have that pop … that’s one thing I do is work on the sled each and every day. Knock-back, knock-back, knock-back. Because if you don’t get knock-back, it’s over with, I can tell you that. It’s over.”

Smith sees all the outside linebackers – himself, Gary, Preston Smith, Kyler Fackrell – moving around up front, allowing them potentially to all line up in an obvious passing situation if Pettine so chooses.

The idea behind signing both Smiths and drafting Gary was to give Pettine options and not allow players along the defensive front to get pigeonholed in one spot, especially in pass-rush packages. It takes different body types, different moves, and different techniques to make it work.

Smith is at the forefront of the keep-’em-guessing gang, and so far he’s loving it.

“It’s good to know you can have all your guys on the field at one time, all your rushers,” he said. “So we’re going to be the guys to get after it, I can tell you that.”

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