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Za'Darius Smith making life difficult on opposition in more ways than one

Fifth-year outside linebacker showing his versatility in Packers’ defense

LB Za'Darius Smith
LB Za'Darius Smith

GREEN BAY – Za'Darius Smith was brought in to help revitalize the Packers' outside pass rush.

In less than a season, however, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and his coaching staff have discovered how the fifth-year linebacker's versatility offers much more than just a solid edge rush to the defense.

All eyes have been on Smith during his breakout campaign in which he's recorded 47 tackles, more than two dozen quarterback knockdowns and a career-high 10 sacks. Smith's 78 pressures are the most Pro Football Focus has charted for any Packers rusher dating back to 2006.

While it might not have all added up to a first-ballot selection to the Pro Bowl – a snub several of his teammates take issue with – opposing offenses are keeping tabs on Smith's whereabouts at all times and making the 6-foot-4, 272-pound outside linebacker one of the league's most double-teamed pass rushers.

Looking to mount his own counterattack, Pettine has started lining up Smith as a rover off the line of scrimmage in certain third-down packages. After occasionally mixing inside from a two-point stance in recent weeks, Smith was a full-blown fixture there in last Sunday's 21-13 win over Chicago.

According to PFF, he played 21 of his 77 snaps in the box against the Bears. Smith was deployed inside when he plowed through Cody Whitehair to hit Chicago quarterback Mitchell Trubisky on the play that resulted in a Dean Lowry interception.

"It does take a certain athlete to do that. Not all athletes can, especially being on the ball, as much as he is," said outside linebackers coach Mike Smith earlier this week. "To come off and get a feel for him doing that, it's been a great mix-up for us and he's getting a lot of production from doing that. He's giving these offensive linemen hell."

Pettine, who put in the package shortly after the season began, said he pulled the idea from how Houston used to move former first overall pick Jadeveon Clowney off the ball in certain schemes.

In Green Bay, it's not the first time the Packers have used their edge rushers inside to create unscouted looks and mismatches. Clay Matthews played rover in many defensive sub-packages during the latter half of his career in Green Bay, including his All-Pro season in 2014.

Meanwhile, the Packers would also rotate Julius Peppers and Mike Neal as three-technique defensive tackles in dime packages to press the pocket. What makes Smith particularly unique is he's capable of doing both, which makes it even more confusing for offensive fronts to prepare for.

"His ability to pressure rush from those various alignments gives him a uniqueness I haven't seen in a long time," said Washington interim head coach Bill Callahan before his team played Green Bay earlier this month. "I haven't seen a rusher like him bring the combination of power, speed, length, close and then get over the guards, and show edge ability and quick hands and power, as well. It's pretty rare to see a guy like him and his abilities to dominate."

The Bears put a premium on defending Smith last Sunday, constantly sliding extra blockers and attention his way. When asked about the number of double teams Za'Darius has faced this year, Mike Smith playfully estimates he added about "50 more" against Chicago.

Statistically, it might have been a quieter day than usual but his impact was obvious. With Smith still generating five pressures on his own, the extra attention thrown his way also freed up defensive tackle Kenny Clark for more one-on-one opportunities. He responded with his biggest day of the season: eight tackles (three for a loss) and two sacks.

"We knew him rushing inside, outside, he can do all that stuff, so we knew this wouldn't be a big thing for him," said Mike Smith of Za'Darius. "Just let him go have fun and cause havoc."

Since he was hired in January 2018, Pettine has worked to build a defense that's simple to implement but complex in how it appears to the opposition. There's no better example of putting that approach into action than shifting Za'Darius inside on occasion.

Pettine has no plans to "live in" that package, but it is another wrinkle every upcoming team on the schedule must account for. Entering Monday night's matchup with the Minnesota Vikings, Za'Darius Smith stands to be an important chess piece for the Packers' defense.

"He's that rare blend of size but the athleticism as well, that he can power through a gap that's not necessarily that wide," Pettine said. "And in tight quarters can make somebody miss or get them off balance and then be able to go the other way on them. So it's different than what I think a lot of teams do."

For that reason, a number of his teammates expressed disappointment this week when it was announced Za'Darius didn't make the Pro Bowl team. Left tackle David Bakhtiari, who often blocks Smith in practice, said he hopes All-Pro recognition is in the pass rusher's future.

Speaking with reporters Friday, Za'Darius Smith didn't have much to say about the Pro Bowl snub or his unique utilization in the Packers' defense. Right now, there's only one "Bowl" currently on Smith's mind.

"I wasn't worried about it from the jump," said Smith of not being selected to the Pro Bowl. "Coach Pettine said something about it; he thought I should have went to the Pro Bowl. I was like, 'Coach, I'm not even worried about the Pro Bowl. I'm trying to get to the Super Bowl.' … So we're going to stay out of that and focus on this game and hopefully get a chance to play in the Super Bowl."

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