GREEN BAY, Wis. – Preston Smith didn't know where fellow Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith was last Friday or why the two weren’t doing their Zoom session with reporters together, like they usually do.
“I’m not sure,” Preston said. “So right now, it’s just the Smith Bro instead of the Smiths Bros. We’ll get back together with the duo soon.”
In another sense, Packers coach Matt LaFleur might have wondered where Za’Darius has been, too.
For it was LaFleur, who pulled Za’Darius aside after three less-than-Za’Darius-like games.
“He challenged me earlier this week to bring my all in this game,” Za’Darius said after Monday night’s win over the Atlanta Falcons. “And I’m going to continue to do it because I started out slow.”
His "all" looked like this: Three sacks, four total tackles for loss and eight quarterback pressures, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
He eclipsed his three-week totals in one game. In Weeks 1-3, he combined for two sacks and four quarterback pressures. He matched his season pressure totals in the first half alone against the Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ overmatched protection unit.
It earned him the game ball from LaFleur and NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors from the league.
“As you can see, I’m back on track now to continue to be great,” he said.
Za’Darius never once mentioned an injury as a reason for his slow start, but he showed up on the injury report last week with an ankle leading into the Falcons game.
“I'm not making excuses for him, but you could just tell he wasn't the guy, didn't have the explosiveness that he had demonstrated before,” defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said.
As for the words of encouragement from LaFleur, Pettine believes that helped, too.
“That's Matt's job,” Pettine said. “He sees a guy who he can get going a little bit and have that talk with, especially a guy who's a captain. He pulled [Za’Darius] aside and we challenge all of our guys, but he was the guy especially that we needed to step up. It wasn't for a lack of effort or want to. It was just one of those games where, 'Hey, let's make sure we step it up...we need you,' and he was able to fight through it.
“We're just fortunate now he's got this extra time to get healed up and get 100%. Fortunately the training staff did a real good job with him and he was close to being full go. I think the extra day certainly helped with the Monday night game, and then [Za’Darius] obviously showed what he's capable of, that he can dominate a game from a variety of positions.”
All three of Za’Darius’ sacks came from his traditional edge position, but there’s more to him than just whipping tackles with speed and quickness. His showed off his power, too. His five other pressures all came from an interior position on the defensive front.
Last year, Za’Darius led the NFL with 63 quarterback pressures, according to ESPN Stats & Info. He not quite back on that pace yet with 12 through four games, but it’s a start. He leads the team with five sacks and perhaps now it’s time for Preston, with only a half-sack so far, to play catch up, although to be fair Pettine has dropped into him coverage at a higher rate (something Preston claimed he’s enjoyed).
Still, the Packers’ defense remains their weakness; they rank 18th in points allowed, 23rd in yards per play and 24th in red-zone efficiency. Missed tackles have been a killer the last two weeks -- 13 against the Saints and 10 against the Falcons, by the coaches’ count.
But at least the Smiths, especially Za’Darius, look back on track.
“You know me, I’m more of a pressure guy, man,” Za’Darius said. “We discussed that last year -- P[ettine] wants sacks, and I want the pressures. But the pressures bring sacks, so in those situations, man, I was just glad I was able to make some big plays for the team and get this [win].”