With three days to go until their 2021 season opener, the Green Bay Packers are taking a cautious approach with both of their top pass rushers.
The Packers held outside linebacker Preston Smith out of Thursday’s practice with a new injury and added him to their injury report for Sunday’s game against the New Orleans Saints amid concerns about the health of fellow starter Za’Darius Smith.
According to ESPN’s Rob Demovsky, Smith is suffering from a “laceration on his head,” but he added the Packers consider the injury to be “not serious.” He was the only new addition to their Week 1 injury report and joins Smith (back), safety Vernon Scott (hamstring) and defensive end Tyler Lancaster (back) as the only four injured Packers.
The Packers have already been paying close attention to Za’Darius Smith’s back injury that kept him sidelined for all but one of the team’s training-camp practices this summer. While Smith has since returned to practice as a limited participant and been “taking steps in the right direction,” Packers head coach Matt LaFleur indicated the decision about his status in Week 1 could depend more on the “long-term” picture.
“Z did a nice job (on Wednesday),” LaFleur told reporters prior to Thursday’s practice on September 9. “He was very limited and we’ll see what he can handle (on Thursday) and how he progresses through, but I think he’s taking the steps in the right direction to hopefully be able to suit up on Sunday and be able to contribute.”
LaFleur also added: “Certainly, we know … every game is so important in this league; however, it is a marathon and it’s a long season, so we would never want to jeopardize the long term for the short term.”
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Packers Have Shown Caution in the Past
As LaFleur noted, the Packers will have to consider both the short-term and long-term consequences of playing Smith against the Saints before making a final decision, but their tendency to err on the side of caution suggests he could end up sitting.
Just last season, the Packers held back numerous star players (Kenny Clark, Davante Adams and David Bakhtiari) to preserve their health for late in the season despite a belief that they could have returned to the field sooner. Adams even seemed a little frustrated when the Packers preemptively ruled him out of their Week 4 game against the Atlanta Falcons after initially listing him as questionable with a hamstring injury.
In hindsight, the decision paid off for the Packers. They won 30-16 over the Falcons without Adams or Allen Lazard in the lineup and saw Adams return in Week 6 (after the bye in Week 5) on a record-setting tear that never lost momentum. He finished the season with a career-best 115 receptions for 1,374 yards and 18 touchdowns.
The most important thing for the Packers — who built their roster around making another deep playoff run after consecutive trips to the NFC Championship Game — is ensuring Smith is able to compete at a high level later in the year when do-or-die football begins. It is also easier for them to make a decision out of caution with Smith when there are two starter-caliber outside linebackers, including 2019 first-round pick Rashan Gary, ready to pick up the slack behind him.
Packers Prepped Roster for Smith’s Absence
LaFleur has been saying since before the end of camp that there’s a possibility that Smith “could potentially” be unavailable for their Week 1 game against the Saints, and it showed in the way the Packers constructed their initial 53-man roster on August 31. Instead of keeping just four outside linebackers as they had in 2020, they opted to keep five with Jonathan Garvin (2020 seventh-round pick) and Chauncey Rivers both qualifying for depth spots behind their Big Three.
Now, that’s not to say Garvin and Rivers didn’t earn their roster spots. Considering the fourth outside linebacker in the rotation primarily plays on special teams, though, the decision to keep five appears to be strongly connected to their concerns about Smith. Sure, Preston and Gary can take the majority of reps if Za’Darius is shut down, but it is a big gamble to assume both will play 100% of defensive snaps while also avoiding any injuries of their own. After all, what’s the point of caution if the backup plan puts another player at risk?
Garvin and Rivers might not see a ton of defensive snaps in Week 1, but you can bet at least one of them will get a chunk of rotational playing time if Smith cannot go against the Saints.