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A Return of Za’Darius Smith and Whitney Mercilus is Exactly What the Packers Need

Pass-rushing depth, not the offensive line or secondary, is where Green Bay could use the most help in the playoffs.

Syndication: PackersNews Mark Hoffman / USA TODAY NETWORK

On Thursday, the surprising news that Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus could potentially return to the squad from the injured reserve list was revealed. Mercilus had missed every game since his mid-November injury against the Seattle Seahawks, which quickly landed him on the injured reserve list. At the time, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the injury was a biceps injury that would sideline Mercilus for the remainder of the season.

Mind you, Mercilus was signed, after he was released by the Houston Texans in October, as a replacement for Za’Darius Smith, who had battled through a back injury to play Week 1 and was placed on the injured reserve in Week 2. The Packers also signed Ladarius Hamilton from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ practice squad to the active roster in Week 2, but Hamilton has since been replaced by Tipa Galeai, originally a practice squad player, as Hamilton has moved back down to the Packers’ practice squad.

On a much lower level, the Packers made moves like signing former college basketball player Aaron Adeoye, former second-round pick Nate Orchard and special teams ace Peter Kalambayi to the practice squad as outside linebackers this season. For as much as the pass-rushing unit has churned this season, though, the team has been unable to find an answer for production off the bench behind starters Rashan Gary and Preston Smith. The preseason injury to Randy Ramsey, placed on injured reserve after seeing playing time at both inside and outside linebacker during summer camp, has not help.

With Mercilus and Za’Darius Smith now practicing, though, the Green Bay Packers’ defense could take a significant jump before the playoffs start. Below is a table of “QB hit” production (via Pro Football Reference) in 2021, with Za’Darius Smith’s 2020 production included, as a one-game sample from Week 1 isn’t reflective of the expectation of Smith’s playoff production.

Packers QB Hit Stats

Name Status QB Hits Snaps QB Hits /100
Name Status QB Hits Snaps QB Hits /100
Rashan Gary Roster 28 681 4.11
Za'Darius Smith (2020) IR-DFR 23 858 2.68
Preston Smith Roster 17 638 2.66
Whitney Mercilus (2 TM) IR-DFR 5 312 1.60
Jonathan Garvin Roster 5 395 1.27
Ladarius Hamilton PS 2 64 3.13
Tipa Galeai Roster 1 152 0.66
Chauncey Rivers IR 0 54 0.00
Randy Ramsey IR 0 0 0.00

While it’s not a perfect, Smith (2.68 QB hits per 100 snaps) and Mercilus (1.6) have produced much more pressure than Garvin (1.27) and Galeai (0.66) on a per-snap basis in Green Bay. In fact, Smith produced four times as many quarterback hits per 100 snaps in 2020 than Galeai, the Packers’ 229-pound designated pass-rusher, has produced in 2021.

While much is made about the return of cornerback Jaire Alexander and offensive linemen David Bakhtiari, Josh Myers and Billy Turner, the pass-rushing unit hasn’t developed the depth of those positions in the absence of their injured contributors. Rasul Douglas has developed into a Pro Bowl alternate cornerback. The difference between Alexander and Douglas should be fairly marginal, as crazy as that might have sounded in September. Lucas Patrick, who started the season off the bench, is now starting at right guard after replacing Myers as the team’s starting center. Yosh Nijman and Dennis Kelly at tackle have made the losses of Bakhtiari and Turner nearly non-factors, to the credit of offensive line coach Adam Stenavich and general manager Brian Gutekunst.

The same cannot be said of the pass-rushing unit, which is one of the most-rotated units on the defensive side of the ball behind the interior defensive line. Far too often, the Packers’ bend-don’t-break defense saw offenses hang on the field for a long enough time to demand that Preston Smith and Gary be subbed out, which is exactly when offenses decided to take their strikes for explosive plays. If Za’Darius Smith and Mercilus can come off of the bench in those situations, that will be the biggest difference between the regular season Packers and the postseason Packers.