GREEN BAY – On Wednesday, Packers linebacker Za'Darius Smith returned to practice for the first time in four months.
The two-time Pro Bowl pass rusher has been on injured reserve since Sept. 17, due to a persistent back injury. After starting training camp on the non-football injury list, Smith was activated on Aug. 16 but practiced only a handful of times.
He was placed on IR after playing just 16 snaps in Green Bay's regular-season opener against New Orleans.
"We're just trying to get him to a position where we feel comfortable where, not only can he go out there and compete at a high level but also he hasn't really been in this system other than one game. We have to make sure he understands his job responsibility, first and foremost," said Head Coach Matt LaFleur before Wednesday's practice.
"We just want to reacclimate him into practice and see how that goes and see how it all meshes before we solidify our plan. Luckily, we not only have this week but next week to continue to get him up to speed."
Without Smith, the Packers leaned heavily on a bounce-back season from Preston Smith and a third-year leap from former first-round pick Rashan Gary The two combined for 84 tackles, 45 quarterback hits, 18½ sacks and four forced fumbles.
Still, Smith's return could provide a significant boost to depth at outside linebacker, with veteran Whitney Mercilus (biceps) and Chauncey Rivers (knee) on season-ending injured reserve.
Prior to his injury, Za'Darius Smith was one of only three NFL players (Aaron Donald and T.J. Watt) with 12-plus sacks in both 2019 and 2020. During his All-Pro campaign in 2020, Smith led Green Bay and ranked in the top 10 among NFL linebackers in 2020 in sacks (12½, t-No. 2), QB hits (23, No. 2) and tackles for a loss (12, t-No. 6).
"You're talking about a guy that's been a leader of our defense, a guy that's had a lot of success, a guy that plays the game the way it should be played," said outside linebackers coach Mike Smith when asked last week about Smith's possible playoff return.
"When he's ready to roll he'll be ready to roll. He won't be shy going in there. He'll throw his body around."