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Preston Smith projecting lessons in leadership

Packers’ veteran edge rusher broke from his past by not focusing on it

LB Preston Smith
LB Preston Smith

GREEN BAY – Last year, Preston Smith broke what he felt was a curse on his career.

Since entering the league in 2015 with Washington, Smith had recorded at least eight sacks in every odd-numbered year, but no more than 4½ in any even-numbered season.

That had continued upon coming to the Packers as a free agent in 2019, when he racked up a career-high 12 sacks but then reverted to just four in 2020.

So when he bounced back, yet again, with nine sacks in 2021 and followed it up – contrary to the prior pattern – with 8½ last season, he felt he finally got "over that hump."

How exactly? Simply enough, the key was to "not focus on it as much," he said. Ever the conscientious and durable veteran – he's missed just one game in his eight-year career – Smith needed to let go a little bit in 2022, and it worked to his advantage.

Now even further entrenched as one of Green Bay's defensive leaders, he'd like to see a similar approach applied to the defense as a whole.

Last year, all the focus was on carrying over the defense's strong finish to 2021 in the playoffs, and the unit fell flat. So as all the questions pour in over how the Packers are going to rebound from not living up to the hype a year ago, he's advocating less attention on the past, and more on what's right in front of everybody.

"We all have chemistry with each other, we all work well with each other, and it's easy for us to correct each other and talk to each other," Smith said of the defense, which is undergoing little transition compared to the offensive side of the ball for the Packers this season.

"It's going to be great to play with these guys once again."

Make no mistake, Smith isn't brushing under the rug the defensive disappointment of 2022. He knows it wasn't good enough. As a group, the Packers never matched how they finished the prior year. It was all fits and starts, loaded with inconsistency and a late-season turnaround predicated on turnovers.

But there's a difference between dealing with it and dwelling on it. The latter does no good, just as it was no use last year in trying to live off the finish to 2021.

Instead, Smith is much more focused on the current landscape. For him, that means providing whatever help the young players need to succeed in their roles and boost the collective.

Rookie first-round draft pick Lukas Van Ness and second-year pro Kingsley Enagbare will be counted on plenty as edge rushers along with Smith and Rashan Gary, whenever he returns from his ACL rehab.

Van Ness' athleticism and "high motor" have stood out to him so far, while Enagbare's knowledge has reached a new level in Year 2 and he just needs to "find something to be great at."

While he's still adjusting to being the grizzled veteran in his position group, Smith appreciates being sought after to provide guidance and advice. He takes pride in his ability to do so without just referring the younger players to a coach.

"That's a great feeling, just knowing somebody's coming to you for the answers, to help improve their game," he said. "It's a great feeling knowing those guys lean on me."

For the most part, his messages are about instilling a "violent" mindset, staying in communication and maintaining positive attitudes. Put another way, his leadership won't be about last year.

"I think I'm the oldest person on defense right now and I'm still young," said Smith, who will turn 31 in November and has 61 career sacks, including playoffs. "It's crazy to say that. It's the first time in my history that I've been the vet on defense. It's a task I'm willing to accept.

"The mentality around here has been great. Everybody has an upbeat spirit and everybody's ready to work and we're ready to be better than we were."

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