GREEN BAY – The stage is set for the highly anticipated return of Rashan Gary this Sunday in Chicago.
While the Packers aren't giving away any hints regarding what kind of snap count their top edge rusher will be on against the Bears, Green Bay has worked out those details behind the scenes amongst Gary, the coaches and training staff.
"The kid's worked his tail off to get to where he's at," defensive coordinator Joe Barry said. "He'll be on a pitch count. What that pitch count exactly is? Tune in Sunday."
The excitement is palpable for Gary's return. The 6-foot-5, 277-pound linebacker was off to a torrid start to 2022 before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in Detroit last November.
In 29 games as a starter, Gary has 87 tackles, 43 quarterback hits and 17 sacks. According to TruMedia, Gary ranks in the top 10 among NFL linebackers in QB hits per game (1.27, fifth), sacks per game (0.51, eighth) and Next Gen Stats pressures per game (2.77, tied for eighth) over the past three seasons.
Green Bay has been cautious with Gary since his activation off the physically unable to perform list last month, but he has looked fast and physical on the practice field.
The plan the Packers devised for the 25-year-old pass rusher's rehab has Gary feeling ready to go. Just how much exactly? That's a mystery that won't fully reveal itself until Sunday.
"From where I started, being able to even be put in a situation like that, I'm nothing but thankful and blessed," Gary said. "I'm absolutely excited for a pitch count. I don't care for how many plays they want me on the field, they're going to get five-two, 110%, for as many snaps as I can get."
One factor enabling the Packers to play it smart with Gary is a deep stable of outside linebackers that features veterans Preston Smith and Justin Hollins, 2022 fifth-round pick Kingsley Enagbare, and rookie first-round pick Lukas Van Ness.
The Packers will need them all this Sunday to help contain Chicago's uber-athletic quarterback, Justin Fields, who was the NFL's seventh-leading rusher last year (1,143 yards).
Fields' 7.1 yards per carry were the most by an NFL player with at least 100 carries since Russell Wilson averaged 7.2 yards on 118 rushes in 2014.
While the 6-foot-3, 228-pound quarterback has yet to beat Green Bay in four tries, Fields still ran for 208 yards and two TDs on 29 attempts (7.5 yards per carry) in those meetings with the Packers.
"We have to contain him in the pocket," Van Ness said. "Just being smart with the way we rush – not leaving escape lanes for him to get out and gain yards with his feet. It's a little different than how we'd typically go about rushing other quarterbacks."
Fields will be a supreme test for Green Bay's defense, but the veteran unit enters the showdown in Chicago with practically all its starters with the exception of third-year cornerback Eric Stokes (foot), who will miss at least four more weeks on the physically unable to perform list.
Gary's activation off PUP last month seemed to infuse even more energy into an already confident defense. The fifth-year veteran's quiet intensity in both practice and the meeting rooms has been a boon for the entire unit, according to Barry.
He uses Gary's meetings with pass-rush specialist Jason Rebrovich to further illustrate that point.
"When we lost him last year, we didn't just lose the dominant, game-changing player – we lost his work ethic," Barry on Thursday. "We lost just his mindset that he brings every single day.
"When you miss that, when you lose that, you not only lose the player, but you lose the leader. You lose that emotional leader, that grit leader that he brings to us every single day."
Safety Darnell Savage, who was drafted in the first round alongside Gary in 2019, senses a different vibe on the field when No. 52 is out there with the rest of the defense.
Regardless of how much Gary plays against the Bears, the Packers believe the return of the defensive cornerstone will help catapult the deep-and-experienced unit to the next level in 2023.
"I think the biggest thing is just his intensity because he's going to push the guys around him to play with his same intensity," Savage said. "It's just good to have that energy and that excitement out there because you know what you're going to get from him."