Revamped outside linebacker group gives Packers’ defense different look

Linebackers Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith
Linebackers Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith

GREEN BAY – The lockers are all lined up, four in a row, at one end of the Packers’ locker room.

From left to right, the names read Smith, Gary, Smith, Fackrell, and it’s fitting that they’re bunched together because it’ll be their collective impact in 2019 that defines the Packers’ pass rush in Year 2 under defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.

“I’m really excited about the group we have and the way we’re going to be able to mix guys in there,” said Kyler Fackrell, the fourth-year pro who’s coming off his best year to date, with 10½ sacks a season ago. “I think we’re really going to be able to get after the quarterback.”

They have to, because regardless of what the sack numbers say, if there are two things Pettine and outside linebackers coach Mike Smith preach it’s the importance of affecting the quarterback and generating turnovers. Those both start with the pass rush.

Amongst the top quartet, Fackrell is the lone returnee in a revamped position group that saw the Packers sign Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith as free agents and draft Michigan’s Rashan Gary at No. 12 overall in the first round.

General Manager Brian Gutekunst targeted the Smiths in free agency as up-and-coming players whose best seasons are still ahead of them. Preston posted a pair of eight-sack seasons in four years at Washington, while Za’Darius led Baltimore’s vaunted defense last season with 8½ sacks.

Then Gary was added as a potential immediate-impact rookie who gives Pettine options. If he wants a second pair of outside ’backers to rotate in for the Smiths, he’s got Gary and Fackrell. If he wants to have more than two on the field in a given package, the Smiths and Gary are capable of shifting from the edge to the inside. And Fackrell’s versatility lies in his coverage skills, allowing him to drop on a back or tight end while perhaps a surprise rusher attacks from another angle.

“I think we have a really, really strong outside linebacker group,” Fackrell said. “I don’t think there will really be any drop-off with the second group coming in.”

Reggie Gilbert and Kendall Donnerson are other experienced returnees at the position who will be looking to establish their place in the pecking order, too.

But it’s clear there’s a whole new hierarchy with Clay Matthews and Nick Perry gone, and with an emphasis on being able to line up in different spots across the defensive front to keep the opposing offenses guessing who’s going to be where on any given snap.

That may be the part of Pettine’s approach that fires up the group the most. He tried it a year ago, as did his predecessor Dom Capers, but it was questionable whether the personnel meshed with the change-ups. There’s more confidence it does now.

“At Michigan I moved around, but here, it’s different,” Gary said. “Now I get to stand up and go rush, or put my hand in the ground. But that’s enjoyable, that’s what I wanted to do. So this defense fits me well.”

As much as Mike Smith raved about Gary’s size-speed profile and was beyond excited to acquire him in the draft, rushing from a two-point stance is a change. Which is why it makes sense Gary’s locker is right between the Smiths, who went through similar transitions earlier in their careers.

“I feel like it’s a great thing for the coaches to put him right there beside us,” Za’Darius Smith said. “He’s a guy they’re trying to get comfortable with a two-point stance. For the past four years, we’ve been doing that. Sometimes he’ll come in here frustrated a little bit but we can talk to him. ‘Hey, man, I didn’t do it, either, but I had to learn it.’ The little things that he’s got going on, we’ve been through it.”

If there’s an emerging leader in the group, it’s probably Za’Darius. He comes from the most accomplished unit in Baltimore, a team that’s been defined over the years by its defense.

That carries with it a different mentality, and Smith wants to bring that along with what he learned from defensive leaders with the Ravens like Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley and Eric Weddle to instill a similar mentality in Green Bay.

“For me to go through the four years that I did in Baltimore and be around a lot of great guys, and then come here and start fresh, I’m going to take advantage of it and do my best to be a leader on this defense and this team,” he said.

The group as a whole is one that needs to lead, schematically and otherwise. Pettine is counting on it for the entire defensive unit to make the jump he seeks.

“I love this defense,” Gary said. “I’m happy to be here, and this defense will let you fly around and make plays and just – go.”

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