Packers’ pass-rushing duo came up huge last season
GREEN BAY - Two free agents. Two career years.
What everyone wants to know with pass rushers Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith as they embark on their second season as Packers is whether they can do it again, or perhaps do even better.
"We always talk a lot about improving and being, you know, complete players," Preston said in a media session Friday as the Packers wrapped up their first full week of training camp. "Bringing a lot more to the table and turning it up a level this year."
That's an awfully tall order, given how the two edge rushers transformed Green Bay's defense in 2019, but there are clear targets for improvement.
Getting to the quarterback isn't one of them, as the duo combined for 25½ sacks in the regular season, the first pair of Packers rushers to post at least a dozen sacks each (Za'Darius had 13½, Preston 12) since sacks became an official statistic in 1982.
Za'Darius, voted a team captain last year, tied for the NFL lead with four games with at least two sacks, a Green Bay first since 2006 (Aaron Kampman). Preston tied for second in the league with seven sacks on third down.
Together, they combined for more than 100 QB pressures (Za'Darius 65, Preston 43) and 80 QB hits (51 and 29), all in their first season in defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's scheme, which fit them better than anyone could have anticipated.
"In this system, guys like me and 'Z' are allowed to be ourselves," Preston said. "It caters to our abilities and our biggest assets, and that's pass rushing and being used in multiple ways instead of being one-dimensional.
"It keeps a lot of offenses on their toes because they don't know what we're going to do when they see us. Coach Pettine does a great job of mixing it up and getting us different looks. No team really has the bead on us."
One that did was the San Francisco 49ers, particularly in the NFC title game when they dominated on the ground and rendered the Smiths' pass-rushing exploits null and void. 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo only had to attempt eight passes in the game.
So that's the first targeted area for the Smiths in 2020, being stouter and more disciplined against the run. It didn't all fall on the Smiths, but Green Bay's run defense was feast or famine last season, holding six opponents under 100 rushing yards, but allowing six over 150, including the 285 piled up by the 49ers with a Super Bowl berth on the line.
"They got on our edges," Za'Darius said. "Like I told you before we left, that's something that we need to work on - basically, me, Preston and everybody in that outside linebacker room, setting better edges."
Generating more turnovers is the other priority. On the 25½ combined sacks (plus four more in the Seattle playoff victory, for the record), the Smiths forced just one fumble apiece.
Outside linebackers coach Mike Smith joined Pettine's staff last year, having previously coached a group of edge rushers in Kansas City that was among the league leaders in forced fumbles. According to the playing Smiths, the coaching Smith is already pushing the issue.
"It's always a point of emphasis," Preston said.
Added Za'Darius: "Coach was just harping on that yesterday. Like, we had so many attempts, but we didn't get the chance to get the ball out.
"He said, 'I can see it this year coming, to where we're going to have a ton of sack fumbles and forced fumbles.' So I can't wait, man, because Coach is speaking it into existence."
What also remains to be seen is the workload the Smiths carry in 2020. Each played nearly 1,000 snaps last season, rarely coming off the field, and Pettine suggested in the spring he'd like to decrease that to keep them fresher over the long haul.
While both players said they'd welcome the same amount of work again, there's an eagerness to see what last year's first-round draft pick at their position, Rashan Gary, might do with an increased role.
Gary is the clear No. 3 outside linebacker now with the departure of Kyler Fackrell in free agency. If he can prove to be as effective as the coaches anticipate, it will free up not only the Smiths to take some breathers but also Pettine to get even more creative.
"Coming from college and being a first(-round) player and learning behind me and 'Z', he learned a lot," Preston said of Gary, who posted two sacks and 19 QB pressures in 244 snaps as a rookie. "He has a lot of athletic ability. He can always be plugged in anywhere and play a lot of multiple positions, just like me and 'Z.'"
Time will tell what it'll all mean when the games start. In any event, the Smiths have given themselves a tough act to follow, but they aren't resting on their inaugural breakout year in Green Bay.
"I always want to get better at something," Preston said.
Added Za'Darius: "I'm prepared and ready to do it again, man. I'm built Ford tough, I can tell you that much."
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