Rashan Gary has 'grown as much as anybody' over the past year

Former first-round pick gives Packers an intriguing chess piece on defense

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LB Rashan Gary

GREEN BAY – Watching from the sideline, Rashan Gary couldn't help but get excited at the sight of Aaron Jones pulling away from the Detroit defense on his way to a 75-yard touchdown run on the first play of the second half on Sunday.

In the blink of an eye, the Packers' fourth-year running back had extended Green Bay's lead to two scores. Now, it was on Gary and the defense to do its part.

"As I saw '3-3' … come with the run, I was just like, 'Wow. It's our time to step on the gas and keep it going, and snatch every confidence that they have,'" Gary said. "The type of energy our offense gives us when we see big plays on the board, let's hurry up and give them back the ball."

The Packers' second-year outside linebacker played a big part in the defense shutting the door on the Lions during a 42-21 victory, tallying four tackles and a career-high 1½ sacks in 33 snaps.

More importantly, Gary contributed to the most significant defensive play of the game that came shortly after Jones' touchdown run. With the Lions backed up to their own 5-yard line, the 6-foot-5, 227-pound pass rusher evaded Adrian Peterson's cut block to pressure Matthew Stafford into an ill-advised pass toward nickel cornerback Chandon Sullivan, who intercepted the ball and returned it seven yards for his first career pick-six.

Even with the Packers ahead 31-14, Gary didn't take his foot off the pedal in the fourth quarter. He dropped Stafford for a 10-yard loss back at the Detroit 3 to force an eventual three-and-out and then combined on a third-and-11 sack with Preston Smith on the final defensive stand of the game.

In the span of two games and 65 defensive snaps, Gary already has amassed more QB hits (four) than he did his entire rookie season (three in 16 regular-season games and 244 snaps).

"I think Rashan's grown as much as anybody in the 20 games we've all been together," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said Monday. "He's got a better understanding of what it is we're asking him to do, his assignments, the adjustments within a play, and he gives great effort down-in and down-out. And I think it's always fun to watch a guy who puts everything into it reap the benefits of that."

After rotating in on third downs as a rookie, the former first-round pick has had a more defined role in Year 2. One addition coordinator Mike Pettine made to his defense is the installation of a modified base package with two defensive tackles, two inside linebackers, plus Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith, and Gary, all on the field together.

The Packers debuted the package in Minnesota and utilized it against the Lions on early downs with Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kenny Clark out with a groin injury.

There's a two-for-one benefit with the package, as it allows Za'Darius Smith to move around the defensive front as a rover, while taking advantage of Gary's prowess as a run defender.

"He might be the best one in the room setting the edge and playing the run. I mean, he's a violent kid," said outside linebackers coach Mike Smith last month. "That's why I'll always have faith in Rashan, because we all know he's athletic. Period. There ain't no doubt about that.

"He's meaner than a rattlesnake, I'm telling you. Guys like that, they don't fail."

Training in Texas, Gary invested a lot of time and energy into taking a jump this offseason and that work has paid dividends since returning to Green Bay in July. Over the course of the Packers' 15 training camp practices, Gary consistently was one of the team's top performers on either side of the ball.

Coach Smith, who has been Gary's biggest fan since Green Bay drafted him 12th overall a year ago, recounted one story of how his pupil texted him at 12:30 a.m. on an off day during camp for three things he could work on before the team's next practice.

Gary's insatiable desire to live up to his potential has led to both Smith Bros. taking a liking to the youngster. To the point, Za'Darius Smith told reporters last month: "I really think it could be a trio. We might have to change his last name."

As the understudy to a pair of pass rushers with 12-plus sacks apiece in 2019, Gary is motivated to follow in the Smiths' footsteps. And he isn't afraid to put in the work to get there.

"I can't not put my best foot forward because when I look to my left and look to my right, I have two brothers with me who are ready to go to war," Gary said. "That's what I keep in my mind and keep my personal goals in the back of my head. That's how I go and keep pushing."

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