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Preston Smith continues to step up for Packers' pass rush

Za’Darius Smith’s absence has brought out the best in his fellow Smith Bro.

LB Preston Smith
LB Preston Smith

GREEN BAY – For the time being, Preston Smith stands alone at the podium inside Lambeau Field media auditorium.

There's no jovial joint news conference on this particular Thursday afternoon. With Za'Darius Smith currently on injured reserve due to a persistent back injury, the floor has been turned over completely to the other half of the popular Smith Bros.

The loss of Za'Darius, a Pro Bowler in each of his two seasons with the Packers, dealt a heavy blow to the Packers' pass rush but there wasn't much time for sulking. The 2021 season was underway and the D-Train had to keep moving.

"We know what's expected of us, with or without Z," Preston Smith said. "We've got to play at a high level. And we've got to do what it takes to help our team out and make sure we make impact plays to help the defense out and put us in great situations throughout the game."

With the Smith Bros. on a temporary on-field hiatus, it's been up to Preston and former first-round pick Rashan Gary to set the tone off the edge for Green Bay's defense.

Statistically speaking, both had their best game of the season in Sunday's 30-28 win over San Francisco, combining for five tackles, five quarterback hits and 1½ sacks. Preston, specifically, was a problem for the 49ers and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

Among Preston's three QB hits was a sequence near the end of the first half when he forced Garoppolo to dirt a ball on second-and-goal from the Green Bay 1. A case could've been made for intentional grounding but officials attributed Garoppolo's incompletion to Smith's hit.

Regardless, the 6-foot-5, 265-pound linebacker appears at home in first-year defensive coordinator Joe Barry's scheme. In some ways, it's football coming full circle after the two previously worked together in Washington back in 2015-16.

"Preston, he's got his priorities in order. He cares about his family and cares about playing good football," Barry said.

"He's got all the ability in the world, and (position coach) Mike Smith does a great job with him. It's been neat. But again, I would expect him to play like he's been playing even if Z was here. It's been great to see him step it up."

It's the response the Packers were hoping to see after Smith went from 23 QB hits and 12 sacks in his first season with the Packers in 2019 to 11 hits and four sacks, respectively, a year ago.

While Smith has only one sack thus far, his five QB hits have already matched his total from the first 10 games last year, according to Pro Football Reference.

Asked what the difference has been, Smith says he really doesn't truly know. He strives to be the same guy – and player – every time he steps on the field. If he's getting positive results, then that's what matters the most.

In the aftermath of the COVID-impacted 2020 season, Green Bay was facing a tight salary cap this offseason. To make all the ends meet and understanding the business aspect of the game, Smith agreed to tweak his contract to give the team added flexibility.

Why? Because his focus, from the beginning, has been on getting to the Super Bowl, a goal that barely escaped him in each of the past two seasons. Smith returned this summer hungry to finally get over that hump. He's earned a lot of respect from his teammates along the way.

"I'm really proud of Preston," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "Preston's come in after taking a pay cut and been a great teammate, a great leader, he's practiced really well. … The way that he's played and battled and led – I've thought he's played good all three games."

Besides the obvious playmaking considerations, a big reason the Packers brought Smith in two years ago was his durability. He has yet to miss an NFL game since Washington drafted him in the second round of out Mississippi State in 2015.

In fact, this Sunday's Pittsburgh Steelers contest will mark the 100th consecutive regular-season game Smith has played in. It's the second longest active streak among active pass rushers, trailing only New Orleans defensive end Cameron Jordan.

To find the last time Smith didn't play in a regular-season game, you'd have to travel all the way back to his true junior season at Mississippi State (Oct. 12, 2013, vs. Bowling Green).

"I just try to make sure that I do what I have to do to be available and ready for each week and make sure I'm here for the team but also myself," Smith said. "I don't even like sitting on the sideline in preseason. It's kind of boring not being out there hitting somebody or playing football. So I just take pride in taking care of my body and doing whatever it takes to get out there on the field and … playing this game I love so much."

For Smith, it's about finding ways in his preparation and on-field performance to be better than the previous week. Even when he makes a big play, like his 3-yard tackle for a loss of Trey Sermon that halted San Francisco's opening offensive series, Smith still finds ways to improve when he watches film.

The Packers are holding out hope for getting Za'Darius Smith back at some point this season (he's eligible to return from IR as soon as next week's game in Cincinnati). Preston, too, is anxious to get his fellow Smith Bro. back beside him.

But until that day is here, Preston has proven he's ready and willing to shoulder a heavier load on defense.

"P's had a lot of great moments," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. "I think the energy and effort's there. I think he's doing a good job of being a leader on our defense and he's just got to keep going. Got to keep stacking those games back-to-back-to-back. But we need him be a disruptive force for our defense to be at its best."