The Green Bay Packers will be without one of their top defensive weapons for the next several weeks of the 2021 season.
On Friday afternoon, Packers head coach Matt LaFleur told reporters the team would be placing All-Pro outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith on short-term injured reserve due to the lingering back injury that held him out of the majority of training camp. Smith had been questionable heading into Week 1’s opener against the New Orleans Saints and did end up playing 18 defensive snaps, but the Packers believe shutting him down is the best decision for both him and the team in the long term.
“Z’s not going to be out there,” LaFleur told reporters on September 17. “Unfortunately, we’re going to have to shut him down for a while. It’s a matter of just … do you keep him in a limited role or do you shut him down for a while, try to get him healthy and then get him up to the snap count we’d like him to be? Because he’s such an impact player. It’s just the route we thought was best long term.”
With Smith’s impending IR designation ruling him out for a minimum of three weeks, the Packers will turn to Preston Smith and Rashan Gary as their every-game starters at outside linebacker and look for additional contributions from some of their depth pieces, including Jonathan Garvin and Chauncey Rivers.
“Those guys, it’s the next-man-in mentality and certainly everybody is going to have to play their part in terms of getting that production,” LaFleur said. “We need everybody to be at their best.”
The latest Packers news straight to your inbox! Join the Heavy on Packers newsletter here!
Smith Has Been a ‘Game-Wrecker’ for Packers
It would be difficult to discount the value Smith has brought to the Packers during his first two seasons. He proved to be one of the best pass rushers in the league in 2019 when he racked up 16 sacks and 93 total pressures and added another 13 sacks and 51 pressures during his second outing in 2020, earning second-team All-Pro recognition despite a decline in the team’s overall pass-rushing output.
“He’s a game-wrecker,” LaFleur said. “Certainly, I think he’s a guy the offense has to account for on every play, where he’s at, where he’s aligned. How are you going to protect against a guy like that? Because if you give him those one-on-one matchups, he can make you pay. He’s certainly proven his worth over the last couple of years and even prior to coming here, just how dominant and such a force he can be.”
The Packers also got a taste of what it can be like to not have that “force” out there on the field on a regular basis last weekend. They generated just five total pressures against Saints quarterback Jameis Winston, four of which were credited to Gary, and failed to sack him one time. Winston also managed to evade pressure and scramble for gains on a few occasions, including three runs for first downs.
If the Packers are hoping to get their defensive issues corrected before Monday Night Football, it will take some step-up efforts from the entire unit without Smith in play.