GREEN BAY — As the continuing saga of two-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith took an unexpected turn Friday — with the Green Bay Packers placing their best pass rusher on injured reserve with his ongoing, mysterious back issue — this much is clear: The team will be counting heavily on Preston Smith and Rashan Gary to make up for his absence.
That might be the only crystal clear aspect to the Za’Darius Smith situation, given that he played just 18 of the Packers’ 62 defensive snaps in last Sunday’s season-opening loss to the New Orleans Saints, then had three light days — a Monday walk-through, a Tuesday film session and a Wednesday day off — but still wasn’t up to practicing on Thursday, even though head coach Matt LaFleur said Smith did not have a setback against the Saints and that the team wasn’t second-guessing the decision to let him play after limited practice work last week.
“Unfortunately, we’re going to have to shut him down for a while,” LaFleur announced Friday morning. “It’s a matter of, do you keep him in a limited role? Or do you shut him down for a while, try to get him healthy and then get him up to the snap count that we’d like him to be, just like he’s been in the past? Because he’s such an impact player, that’s just the route that we thought was best long term.”
Asked if he regretted playing Smith against the Saints, LaFleur replied, “No, I think we’re comfortable with the decision, certainly. It’s just one of those deals where you want him more readily available, and we feel like this is the best way to allow that to happen. He’s going to have to rehab hard, and hopefully over time … it’s just one of those injuries that you never quite know.”
Smith hasn’t spoken to reporters since training camp began on July 27 with him on the non-football injury list with the back issue, which LaFleur has acknowledged he doesn’t know the cause of. Smith did take part in the team’s offseason program, but he practiced only once on a limited basis during training camp and is known to be unhappy both with his contract situation and with the fact that his teammates did not vote for him to be a season-long defensive captain after selecting him the past two years.
Preston Smith said he had not spoken with his close friend at all about the injury or whatever else might be on his mind.
“I don’t know the severity of his injury,” Preston Smith said. “We talk, but I try not to talk about whatever he has going on because that’s of course what he has to deal with.”
Za’Darius Smith will miss at least three games before he’s eligible to return from injured reserve, starting with the Packers’ matchup with the Detroit Lions on “Monday Night Football” at Lambeau Field. But the Packers gave no indication on how long he might be sidelined. The Packers signed outside linebacker LaDarius Hamilton off the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ practice squad to take his roster spot.
“When you lose a guy like Za’Darius Smith, what he brings to us from a physicality standpoint and obviously from a pass-rush standpoint, when you lose a player like that, that’s a big deal,” defensive coordinator Joe Barry said. “But it is what it is. We want him to get back whenever he can. And in his absence, we’re going to have to step up and create some things. But it’s a great opportunities for a bunch of guys to be able to go show what they’ve got.”
That list starts with Preston Smith and Gary, as Za’Darius Smith had a combined 26 sacks and 144 quarterback pressures (per Pro Football Focus) over the past two seasons. The Packers came out of the offseason program with high hopes for getting all three of them on the field together on a regular basis but that fearsome threesome is on hold for now.
“Well, he was limited before (this). It’s always a next-man-up mentality for the defense,” said veteran safety Adrian Amos, one of the defensive captains. “We just have to go out there and execute, and I think we’ve got the guys to do it. We’ve got some great guys at his position. I think we’ll be OK.”
Gary, who is set to speak with reporters on Saturday, was the team’s best pass-rusher against the Saints, registering a team-high four pressures. After Gary, the only other outside linebackers on the roster are Jonathan Garvin, Chauncey Rivers and Hamilton.
“It’s obvious that I’m going to miss him, and we’ll miss him as a team. But our coaches always talk about the next-man-up mentality,” said Preston Smith, who accepted a pay cut to return during the offseason after his sack numbers fell from 12 in 2019 to four last year. “Whoever’s the next man up, whether it’s Rashan, Chauncey, ‘JG’ or me, we have to be ready and we have to go out there and execute and play hard.
“With me and Rashan, every day, we make sure we set a standard in the room for our guys and (they have to) play to that same standard when they touch the field.”
In his first session with reporters since Sunday’s loss, Barry struck an ultra-positive chord — despite his unit’s terrible performance in his debut as defensive coordinator. “You never have to worry about me. Promise. OK? I’m great. It’s a long season,” Barry said. “I don’t want to diminish the fact that that was definitely not the way we want to start, but guys came back in and had a great week.” … Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett downplayed a Sports Illustrated story highlighting him as a future head coach. “It’s awesome to get that kind of recognition, but it’s kind of ironic (that it came) after we got annihilated, because usually that success comes from being successful,” Hackett said. “But it’s about the next opponent — one week, one day at a time.” … Safety Darnell Savage (shoulder) practiced for the second straight day, an encouraging sign that he’ll be good to go against the Lions. … Starting right guard Lucas Patrick and tight end Josiah Deguara remained in the concussion protocol and did not practice. If Patrick isn’t cleared in time for the game, offensive line coach Adam Stenavich said either Jon Runyan or Jake Hanson would start in his place. … Tight end Marcedes Lewis was given a veteran rest day off from the in-pads practice. … Rookie center Josh Myers (finger) practiced in full for the second straight day. … Ex-Packers punter JK Scott worked out for the New York Giants.
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