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Za’Darius Smith on playing rover: ‘I have all the freedom in the world’

The Packers’ top veteran pass-rusher discusses one of his significant alignments and breaks down film to illustrate his approach.

NFL: SEP 13 Packers at Vikings

With Kenny Clark out for the Green Bay Packers last Sunday, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine used a heavy dose of a playcall known as “Z Green Bay.” As the first letter suggests, this is an alignment that features Za’Darius Smith, the team’s biggest free agent acquisition in the 2019 offseason, in the middle of the defense.

This call signifies Smith being able to rush the passer from a “rover” position, roaming around the interior of the line of scrimmage to find the best gap to attack. This week, the NFL published a video of Smith breaking down his play from that position with analyst Brian Baldinger, and it is instructive to see just how much Za’Darius’ film study informs what he does in these situations.

Smith discusses the finer points of pass-rushing in this video, whether rushing from that rover position — which he says gives him “all the freedom in the world” to diagnose the offense’s formation and pick his own gap — to a more traditional edge spot to even the 3-technique alignment between the guard and tackle. Give the video a watch as he discusses how rush lanes work together and how the Packers scheme up pressure by combining their study on their opponents’ tendencies with their own alignments on the defensive front.

It’s a great watch and Smith is quick to credit his teammates for their contributions on his own big plays as well. Kenny Clark in particular gets a shout-out late in the video for working to carry blockers away and give Smith a one-on-one pass-rush matchup, which he wins convincingly. This video is truly a testament to Smith’s cerebral qualities, which are every bit as important to his 13.5-sack season a year ago as his physical skills, if not more so.

In week two, Smith’s rover alignment was used frequently with Clark off the field to ensure that the Packers could keep a dominant player around the middle of the field. Keep an eye on that moving forward if Clark continues to miss time.

Smith has one sack in each of the Packers’ two games so far in 2020.