GREEN BAY – It's been nearly eight months since the Packers' selection of Rashan Gary sent outside linebackers coach Mike Smith sprinting up and down the hallways at Lambeau Field in excitement.
Fast forward to Week 16 and Smith remains every bit as enthusiastic about the rookie first-round pick's potential, especially with how Gary has performed as of late. In 31 combined snaps against Washington and Chicago, Gary amassed seven tackles (two for a loss) and a sack of Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.
"Gary is picking it up and he's recognizing it and he's talking," said Smith on Monday. "He's starting to play faster, more aggressive. That's kind of who he's always been, an aggressive type of kid, but when you know what's going on, you play a lot faster. This last week, I thought he did some good things."
Gary, who only turned 22 on Dec. 3, has played mostly a complementary role to the Packers' pass rush for much of his rookie year, with Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith producing at a Pro Bowl level during their first seasons in Green Bay.
Through 14 games, Gary's surest path to the lineup has been rotating with fourth-year veteran Kyler Fackrell as the third outside linebacker in the third-down rush package.
However, two unique modifications afforded Gary more defined roles on defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's unit in recent weeks. With Washington often playing with a sixth offensive lineman, Gary was utilized as a third outside linebacker in the Packers' heavy base package. He registered four tackles (one for a loss) in only 13 snaps.
With Za'Darius Smith lining up as more of a rover against the Bears, Gary made his 18 snaps as an edge rusher count. Among his three tackles was an impressive sack of Trubisky before the first half's two-minute warning.
Gary got a step on right tackle Cornelius Lucas off the snap and stayed with it to win the rush and bring Trubisky down for his second sack of the year. It caused the Bears' drive to stall, with Chicago settling for a 30-yard Eddie Pineiro field goal.
"When I got to the edge of the tackle and I saw he still has the ball, I said, 'Yes,'" Gary said. "I just turned it on an extra gear and made sure I got there."
With 20 tackles and two sacks in 199 defensive snaps (23.3%), Gary continues to buy into the process in the outside linebacker room. He looks at the Smiths as "big brothers," constantly watching how the two go about their business in meeting rooms and practice.
Now, Gary is working to carry lessons learned in practice into in-game settings like Preston (11½ sacks) and Za'Darius (10 sacks) have done during their breakout seasons. More than anything, however, Gary is just looking to "relax and play," which he did on his sack against Chicago.
"It helps me because I'm out there with Preston and 'Z,' and they're able to see things and give me, 'Oh, yeah, it's pass right now,' and help me play a little bit faster," Gary said. "It's been a blessing. Not every rookie is blessed to come in and have two great guys like that in front of you and show you how to be a pro's pro. … It's guys like that who will make me better."
In the meantime, there have been several areas of emphasis Smith has worked on with Gary during his rookie season – from getting the rookie's pads down, to honing his three-point stance technique to pop into his interior rush at the snap, to developing a keener sense for diagnosing plays based on backfield alignment.
As the Packers gear up for a playoff run, the Smiths undoubtedly will be a big part of the puzzle for Pettine's defense. There could come a time when Gary is called upon to make an impact, and to this point, Smith likes what he's seen from the talented rookie.
"When you get guys and they're starting to get rewards from it, it's a good thing," Smith said. "If Gary stays on what he's doing, he's going to be a good player. He loves football too much. He's too aggressive. He's too mean. He's gotta be good."