Unlocking Za'Darius Smith's versatility has been key for Packers' defense

Mike Pettine finding more ways to get the Smith Bros. and Rashan Gary on the field together

LB Za'Darius Smith

GREEN BAY – One of the biggest talking points of the Packers' offseason was Mike Pettine's desire to get Rashan Gary more involved.

And Green Bay's third-year defensive coordinator has made it happen through the first two games of the season.

Gary, the 12th overall draft pick a year ago, has been playing all three downs on his way to five tackles, four quarterback hits and 1½ sacks on 65 defensive snaps (58.6%).

While Gary's playing time has spiked from the modest 23.5% he played as a rookie, the uptick hasn't come at the expense of star outside linebackers Za'Darius and Preston Smith.

In fact, both Smith Bros. are playing a higher percentage of snaps this year. Za'Darius Smith has been on the field for 99 of a possible 111 defensive plays (89.2%), while Preston is only one snap off that pace with 98 (88.3%).

The three pass rushers already were featured players in Green Bay's dime defense, but Pettine hasn't been afraid to use Za'Darius as a rover behind the defensive front in modified base (four DB) and nickel (five DB) packages this season.

"It's certainly something that's an option to us, and some of that's predicated by what the offense is in, what the situation is," said Pettine on Thursday. "With Rashan elevating his level of play, it's natural for us to maybe lean on that a little bit more, because we're always tasked as coaches – you want to get your best 11 on the field."

Pettine experimented with using Za'Darius as a rover late last season and the results were positive, especially during a dominant, 3½-sack performance against Minnesota in Week 16. It was the capstone on his career year in which he had 13½ sacks and a league-high 93 pressures (according to Pro Football Focus) en route to his first Pro Bowl appearance.

This year, the Packers have continued to build on that foundation. The 6-foot-4, 272-pound linebacker is off to another fast start with six tackles and a team-high two sacks, and defenses having difficulty keeping tabs on his whereabouts.

According to PFF, Za'Darius been in the box on 18 of his 99 defensive snaps this season. It just so happens two of the biggest defensive plays of the season have come when he's playing off the line of scrimmage, with Preston and Gary lining up as traditional edge rushers.

In Week 1 against Minnesota, Jaire Alexander darted around Gary to sack Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins for a safety. Last week against Detroit, with Green Bay in a nickel variant, Gary pressured from that same side to force Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford into throwing a critical pick-six midway through the third quarter.

Both plays started with the offensive line having to account for where Za'Darius was, and were critical in the Packers' defense settling in and enabling its offense to begin pulling away.

"That's a big swing when you get turnovers right like that," safety Adrian Amos said. "You feel like it's one of those 14-point swing type of things when you can steal a possession like that and go in, and score. I think on both ends, when you can get turnovers when they're backed up and when you can get turnovers in your own red zone, to me, those are huge plays."

Moving around is nothing new for Za'Darius. As he outlined in a recent film breakdown with NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger, he often lined up as a three-technique inside rusher due to his penchant for winning one-on-one against interior offensive linemen.

By moving him off the line of scrimmage, it makes it more difficult for the offense to get a bead on where he's rushing from while also allowing the Pro Bowl pass rusher more freedom to play off his instincts and shoot gaps.

That has the twin benefit of causing havoc against the run (he had 40 "stops" last year) and creating one-on-one situations for the rest of the defensive front in the pass rush.

"For the defense, it's creating a lot of different looks up front," Preston said. "With the different packages we have and the mix-ups we have, they don't know … which is kind of frustrating in a lot of ways because they have to prepare for three different guys lining up across from them."

The Packers had a very specific plan last year when they drafted Gary one month after signing the Smiths. As Gary takes on more responsibility on defense, it will only heighten the unpredictability of how the Packers use the Smith Bros.

Regardless of the down, personnel or rotation, it's becoming abundantly clear that a versatile Za'Darius raises all pass rushers in Green Bay's defense.

"You don't know where he's going to go," inside linebacker Christian Kirksey said. "When you have a guy that high-caliber, you can use him in many ways and that's the advantage for us on defense, that he can play good in the run and also play good in the pass and he's versatile to be able to play all over the field.

"And he's smart enough to play all over the field. Having a player like that definitely helps us."

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