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Za’Darius Smith’s All-Pro season, versatility holds key to playoff success

Brian Gutekunst raised eyebrows around the league when he handed a top-of-market contract to a part-time Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker. Now, Big Z looks like an All-Pro and could elevate this defense in January.

Washington Redskins v Green Bay Packers
It doesn’t matter where Za’Darius Smith has lined up this season, teams can’t block him.
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

A sterling defensive performance against the worst offense in the NFL won’t make the top of any sports highlights show or lead sports talk radio. But what Za’Darius Smith has done this season can’t be ignored and, with the help of Mike Pettine, the Green Bay Packers’ new outside linebacker has a chance to elevate this defense to new levels in a Super Bowl run.

The Smith Brothers became a fun story this offseason when Green Bay signed not one, but both Preston and Za’Darius Smith: a pair of talented outside linebackers, neither of whom were ever putting up gaudy sack numbers. The dollar figures involved turned heads and drew the criticism of plenty of informed observers. Unequivocally, they have been worth the money.

Za’Darius immediately transformed into a leader on this team, not just for young outside ‘backers like Rashan Gary, but as a cultural voice on the team. The energy and tone of this team fundamentally changed thanks to Matt LaFleur and players like Big Z.

Maybe that couldn’t happen if he doesn’t start kicking ass and taking names in training camp. He was beating David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga in 1-on-1 pass rush reps, and even in team drills, no one could block him, a harbinger of things to come over the course of the season.

Right now, Smith leads the league in pressure rate according to Pro Football Focus’ charting numbers, and he has been the fourth-most productive edge rusher at getting after the quarterback since 2015. He’s not just good for a free-agent signing, or good for a Packers pass rusher relative to the guys they’ve had recently — he’s recent history good.

Before this stretch against bad teams, we already knew Smith had that ability; he’s been wrecking games since Week 1. But Pettine made a subtle adjustment since the calendar moved to December, deploying Smith as a rover.

On the first series against the Giants, he played first and second down as a defensive end with his hand in the dirt. On third down, he slid inside where he could rush alongside Kenny Clark, who is back to playing like a Pro Bowler, with Preston Smith on the edge next to Kyler Fackrell. On the first possession, Z rushed with his hand down, while on the second he was a stand-up rusher inside. These four-man pressures and their success make it easier for Pettine to play coverage and not have to risk busted assignments by sending blitzers.

A four-man rush got home consistently against New York and Washington, and although that’s not a formula that will work every drive, it’s an arrow in Pettine’s quiver few other teams have. The scariest playoff teams though, the 49ers, Saints, and Vikings, can all pressure with four.

Pettine took Smith’s superlative versatility and added a facet against Washington. On the first drive, Za’Darius destroyed Ereck Flowers for a sack to kill the drive from inside. The next drive, on the very first play, Pettine brought pressure with Adrian Amos, dropping Preston Smith in coverage. Dwayne Haskins never saw it and Amos came free for the sack. Za’Darius played his usual outside linebacker position, drawing the attention of both the right tackle and the tight end, and allowing Amos to sneak free.

This aggressiveness on early downs paid off, consistently getting Washington into 3rd-and-long situations where the Packers could go back to that four-man rush look.

Even on 3rd-and-short, Pettine can use a four-man rush with Za’Darius playing inside and using Blake Martinez to feint a blitz. With Clark, the Smith Bros., and Fackrell on the field, it’s hard enough to block that four. Even harder whan they think Martinez might be coming too.

Pettine decided he really wanted to make life miserable for the Washington offense, so he made them have to worry about where Za’Darius would be coming from, allowing him to roam pre-snap and fire upfield at the last second, before the offensive line has a chance to set assignments.

This adds a fascinating wrinkle as it’s not actually a blitz. Smith was always going to rush, but the scheme worked effectively because of the late movement and his preternatural power. Deploying Smith this way on early downs, even in a likely run situation makes this a de facto run blitz, but without having to worry about smaller personnel getting swallowed up and killing gap responsibilities.

Smith played just 26 of his 59 snaps against Washington at his usual right outside linebacker position. Moving him around, even on early downs, to attack run lanes and disrupt in the backfield represents the next step on his evolution as an All-Pro player.

Green Bay’s third-down defense struggles in large part due to allowing early down successes. In fact, the Packers are last in the league in success rate on first down against the run, compared to 8th against the pass. They’re even last in success rate against the run on first and second down combined. If this wrinkle, run blitzes, pressure packages, and Za’Darius Smith as a rover provide a solution, it sets the Packers up to do more of what it wants to do on third down: rush four with its ferocious front and play coverage behind.

Smith’s unique blend of pass rush savvy, versatility, and killer proficiency make him the perfect chess piece for a Pettine defense. If the Packers can use this formula against better teams, the defense should be able to hang in the playoffs. And as we’ve seen all season, a plan hinging on Za’Darius Smith to win is a plan with a good chance.