The 2020 NFL season is still months away, but Green Bay Packers edge rusher Za’Darius Smith has already marked his calendar for late September’s primetime game against the New Orleans Saints and quarterback Drew Brees.
After Brees made controversial comments on Wednesday afternoon against NFL players protesting during the national anthem, Smith responded with an Instagram post of the Packers’ scheduled road game at the Saints for Sunday Night Football, including a simple but effective caption that captures Smith’s anticipation of the matchup.
Smith, who tallied a career-high 13.5 sacks and reached the Pro Bowl in 2019 during his first season with the Packers, will expectedly receive ample opportunity to take down Brees as one of the Packers’ leading pass-rushing threats. He doesn’t seem to be the only one, either, as fellow edge rusher Rashan Gary and inside linebacker Oren Burks also both commented with a show of support for Smith’s sentiment.
The Packers begin the 2020 season with back-to-back NFC North rivalry games, visiting the Minnesota Vikings in Week 1 before hosting the Detroit Lions for their Week 2 home opener, but a showdown in Week 3 between the Nos. 2 and 3 playoff seeds in the NFC last year carried plenty of weight prior to Brees’ recent comments.
The matchup with the Saints marks the first of six primetime games on the books for the Packers in 2020, including another in Week 4 against the Atlanta Falcons for Monday Night Football. It also comes just two weeks before the Packers face off against Tom Brady for the first time since he joined the Tampa Bay Buccanneers.
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Packers Aim to Keep Smith Bros. Fresh in 2020
The impact of Za’Darius and Preston Smith on the Packers defense became noticeable right away and endured for the entire season with the pass-rushing tandem logging a combined 25.5 sacks, 28 tackles for loss, 60 quarterback hits and 84 quarterback pressures along with a handful of takeaways — one interception and two forced fumbles.
At the same time, Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine would be the first to admit the Smith Bros. — who each played 84 percent of defensive snaps last season — could have used some more rest at times. In his first season as a full-time starter, Za’Darius Smith’s body at times seemed to still be catching up to his increased workload with the Packers, leaving him down on the field in multiple games with cramps and other issues.
For Pettine, the solution is simple: Rashan Gary.
The Packers’ first-round pick didn’t sparkle in his debut season in the NFL, partly due to the presence of the Smiths and a steady, know-the-scheme guy in Kyler Fackrell, but Pettine is charting a massive jump for Gary in Year 2 of the system as he takes on a “significantly increased” role for the 2020 season.
“We want to take some off (the Smiths’) plate, so I do know that Rashan is certainly built to handle giving those guys a break,” Pettine said on a recent conference call. “I just think because of his skill set, we can use him more like we’ve used Z, on third down especially, that he can kick down inside and rush from a tackle spot as opposed to always being on the edge.”