On Monday morning, the Green Bay Packers were greeted with a bundle of good news. Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network reported that edge rusher Za’Darius Smith has been fully cleared, with the expectation being that he’s ready to go for Green Bay’s first playoff game. The report came somewhat out of nowhere. There was a growing sense of resignation that Smith was done for the year. Now, there’s one clear way the Packers can reincorporate him into the mix with his return imminent.
Preston Smith and Rashan Gary both turned in tremendous regular seasons for Joe Barry’s defense on the edge. The former was the wild card who followed up a great 2019 with a deflating 2020 campaign. Preston Smith took a pay cut to remain in Green Bay and got back to his disruptive ways, wrecking offensive lines in the offseason.
Gary was the star that everyone predicted would burst onto the scene this year. Once Za’Darius Smith went down, the door was wide open, and Gary sprinted through. The third-year player out of Michigan was explosive this season. His play on the edge put quarterbacks in a tough spot which, in turn, set up the secondary for some easy takeaways. That’s what Green Bay has had in place even with Za’Darius’s absence this season, and it’s that dynamic that they shouldn’t shakeup.
Za’Darius Smith is an All-Pro talent with the resumé to prove it. Still, there’s something to be said about maintaining the balance Preston Smith and Gary have found this year. One grand idea for Barry would be putting Z inside on the defensive line. A front four consisting of Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith, Kenny Clark, and Gary would be nightmare fuel for opposing offenses.
There would be certain packages where Z works off the edge to spell Gary or the other Smith. But unlike the offensive line situation, Green Bay shouldn’t tinker too much with what’s been working on the edge.
For as good as Yosh Nijman and even Royce Newman were at times, getting back David Bakhtiari and Josh Myers were clear upgrades to the offensive line. Bakhtiari settled back into his left tackle role in Week 18 while Myers slotted back in at center. That, in turn, kicked Lucas Patrick over to right guard and left Newman on the outside. Newman is still a rookie and had his fair share of struggles getting better as the year went on. Nijman was a third-string left tackle who wasn’t expected to be part of the plan. He was brilliant filling in for an injured Elgton Jenkins, who was himself filling in for an injured Bakhtiari. It’s not the same setup on the edge of the defense.
Preston Smith and Rashan Gary are both Pro Bowl-caliber players. Preston Smith was brought in three years ago as a major piece of the defense and has delivered for the most part. Gary was a first-round pick who took the spotlight this season. They aren’t rookies. They aren’t third-stringers. We’re talking about core players. Stars, even. That’s what makes the return of Za’Darius Smith a tad more tricky, but it’s welcome nonetheless.
Barry will have options on defense, and having options is always a good thing. Going with Preston Smith and Gary on an overwhelming amount of the snaps off the edge seems to be the right recipe for now. Why try fixing something that isn’t broken? Za’Darius Smith will still get his reps. But he needs to be slowly worked back into the rotation and used in various ways, including on the interior of the line.
Green Bay is getting healthy at the right time, bringing back some big names. All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari returned on Sunday against the Detroit Lions after missing the entire season up until that point. Jaire Alexander has been back practicing with the expectation that he will return for the playoffs after not playing since Week 4. Now Za’Darius Smith, who slowly but surely has gained full clearance, should be back on the field as well. Three All-Pros who have hardly played this year, all back for a Super Bowl push. Green Bay will sign up for that.