Za’Darius Smith Needs to Get Back to His 2019 Form

The Green Bay Packers put up solid sack numbers in 2020, but edge rusher Za’Darius Smith suffered a major setback in his production. The Packers’ top pass rusher had a breakout year in 2019, but his noticeable regression last season raised a lot of eyebrows. For this defense to reach its full potential in 2021, Green Bay needs Smith to have a closer resemblance to his 2019 form.

During the 2019 offseason, Smith signed a four-year, $66 million contract and wasted no time showing why it was the right decision. The former Baltimore Raven experienced a career year in which he set career highs in tackles, tackles for loss, quarterback hits, and sacks. He tied the NFL lead with 37 quarterback hits and, according to Pro Football Focus, led the NFL with 93 quarterback pressures.

Smith received a PFF grade of 90.2 for his 2019 campaign, which ranked second among all edge rushers.

Understandably, it was going to be hard for Smith to match his first-year success, but no one expected his play to have such a sharp decline.

Although Smith posted similar sack numbers last season, his overall impact was not nearly the same. He finished with only one fewer sack than his 2019 total, but his quarterback hits went from 37 to 23. Most coaches would agree that affecting the opposing quarterback at a higher rate holds more value than ending a play with a sack.

In 2019, Smith’s 93 pressures were astounding. It put him in the defensive player-of-the-year conversation and immediately made him one of the best defensive signings in the past decade. Unfortunately, Smith experienced a huge drop in his pressure rate from year one to year two with the Packers.

Per PFF, Smith finished last season with just 51 total pressures. This dropped his defensive grade from PFF to 76.7. Failing to consistently get after the opposing quarterback turned out to be a major culprit.

During his breakout season, Smith had seven games in which he recorded more than five pressures. Last season, Smith was nowhere near as consistent, finishing with more than five pressures in just two outings.

Green Bay does not necessarily need Smith to duplicate his 2019 production, but it would be beneficial for everyone involved if he impacted games with more regularity. If that means him finishing the year with closer to 70 pressures and fewer sacks, the Packers’ defense would certainly take it.

 

 

 

 

Brandon Carwile is a Packers writer who also enjoys watching and breaking down film. Follow him on Twitter @PackerScribe.

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Comments (24)

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Coldworld's picture

July 21, 2021 at 12:08 pm

Could it have something to do with Pettine being less aggressive? In a D now focused on stopping the big plays over disruption, sacks and turnovers, I’d say Z had a pretty decent showing despite Clark missing time and questionable front 7 usage in addition. To the change in emphasis. I’m not worried about Z having to up his game. Plenty of things I am concerned about in our front 7.

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LambeauPlain's picture

July 21, 2021 at 12:47 pm

Agree. I was surprised how often Pettine would rush only 4 with 2 down lineman and play dime. He was so paranoid to stop the pass, the run D would give up the first down. Then rushing only 4 vs 5 OL and a RB in pass pro would give the QB time to complete the pass, in spite of our solid DBs. Give the QB time and someone will break free.

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KnockTheSnotOutOfYou's picture

July 21, 2021 at 02:14 pm

How about it might have something to do with Preston reporting to camp out of shape with excess weight that he still hasn't lost? That his sub par year lessened defenses attention on Preston and more on Z?

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

July 22, 2021 at 01:20 am

All reports suggest that Preston was leaner at OTAs.
The article is about Zadarius, but perhaps Preston's performance impacted Z's play.

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Coldworld's picture

July 22, 2021 at 07:49 am

That is certainly possible, though perhaps the implication of the Z led delegation before the Titans could be that it was Pettine and his move to a more defensive mindset and player usage that Z saw as the main problems?

I don’t think there was any doubt that P Smith looks and was seen by the coaches to be much leaner this season. His contract is now heavily incentive laden. I’m optimistic.

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jannes bjornson's picture

July 22, 2021 at 06:28 pm

Now we're getting warmer.

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LambeauPlain's picture

July 21, 2021 at 12:42 pm

Pressures more valuable than a sack? Perhaps. Only if the pressure results in an incompletion most of time or a t/o. It would be interesting to know the percent of the time pressures result in incompletions and t/o's. The value of a sack is down and distance advantage for the D and usually will lead to a punt...and an ocassional t/o.

It could be Z also slipped a bit because Preston was often in pass coverage last year when in 2019 both he and Z were rushing the QB together on more plays when Fackrell would come in on passing downs and Z would put his hand down while P stayed on the edge.

I am hoping both Preston, Z and Gary develop powerful synergies in the pass rush that will ripple positively all through the D.

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KnockTheSnotOutOfYou's picture

July 21, 2021 at 02:15 pm

Ditto!

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

July 22, 2021 at 01:39 am

Was there an edit in the wording of the article?

I'm now reading: "Most coaches would agree that affecting the opposing quarterback at a higher rate holds more value than ending a play with a sack."

It could have been stated more clearly. One sack is better than one pressure. 93 pressures (5.81 pressures per game) with 13.5 sacks (.84/game) and 37 QB hits is indeed much better than 51 (3.19/gm), 12.5 sacks and 23 QB hits. Z's QB knockdowns (meaning he was close enough to the QB to knock him down as the QB was trying to pass) dropped from 22 to 11.

I thought Zadarius played with poor run discipline in 2019. (I thought Clark did as well). I suppose that is in line with a more disruptive style of defense.

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Stroh's picture

July 22, 2021 at 03:21 pm

Correct. In 2019 the pass rush was clearly the priority. They didn't use much, if any rush lane discipline. That leads to more sacks and pressures. In 2020 it was clear they used much more rush lane discipline which is easily tied to somewhat decreased pressure rates overall. Now P Smith had a much more drastic drop in production due to conditioning, but the fact that the pass rush in general was down accross the board, certainly indicates the using more rush lane discipline might have affected the pressure rate, more than slippage by the individual players not being as good.

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porupack's picture

July 22, 2021 at 06:28 am

Yes, agreed LambeauP. Sacks are as important as pressures, because without sacks, the QB gets immune to pressure that rarely gets home. A few early sacks, makes the pressures potent.

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Stroh's picture

July 22, 2021 at 03:25 pm

QB don't really get immune to pressure. They typically get antsy and nervous in the pocket. And QB's hate getting hit. So knockdowns really make them uncomfortable. Clearly sacks are the best outcome, but pressure and knockdowns have a cumulative effect and lead to rushed throws and accuracy issues. So any kind of pressure adds up!

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NoNonsense's picture

July 21, 2021 at 02:02 pm

Good point about Fackrell, Plain. This is why I see Tipa Galeai making the team and being that speed rusher/coverage OLB they were missing last year. I can see why he didn't make the team last year with Pettine as the def coach, he wanted big strong OLBs like Z, P and Gary who all weight between 260 and 280. Looking at the Rams defense last year with Leonard Floyd who probably weighs around 240, 245 on his 6'5" frame makes me think Barry may have more use for the similarly sized Galeai in his scheme. I think he's gonna tear it up in the preseason to force his way onto the roster anyway but just knowing Barry saw how they used Floyd last year makes me confident that if he makes the team he will have some kind of role on defense besides just being the 4th OLB injury replacement. Use him to drop in coverage or race around the edge with his length and speed.

I would love to see some 4 man fronts with Gary and Preston at DE, Clark and Zadarius in the middle with Galeai and Campbell playing coverage or rushing off the edge and having Martin or Barnes manning the middle.

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

July 22, 2021 at 01:48 am

I liked what I read about Tipa's performance in TC last year. I read he played at 229 pounds though draftscout reports he was 235 at his pro day (he couldn't take part at the combine due to misdemeanor charges due to a fight with two men).

I hope with a year in the pros he put on at least 10 pounds of muscle or more.

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Coldworld's picture

July 22, 2021 at 07:57 am

I have been saying for a while that we needed, and now need a cover capable OLB, who presumably would also be a speed rush option. I’ve cited Tipa as the most likely candidate since last season.

He is way under sized, which is a large part of why a player with his speed rush potential was available. I hope he has added body mass, his frame looks like he has that potential. That said, what he flashed last year was a real ability to speed rush, not coverage skill. I just hope he has the ability to learn that and will start to show that this camp. If he has added muscle and mass, he has the potential to be a situational threat if he can show coverage ability. That would be a win win.

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Leatherhead's picture

July 21, 2021 at 02:24 pm

I remember us getting gashed by QB scrambles that converted 3rd downs. I remember our edge guys, like Matthews, getting steered around behind the QB who would then just take off for an easy 10 yards. I remember a QB rushing for 175 yards against us in a playoff game.

So for me, I’d rather have a pass rush that keeps the QB from doing that, even if it slows down the rush

Pass defense starts with guys who can cover . The longer they can cover, the better the chance of the pocket collapsing. If you cannot cover, it is impossible for a pass rush to get there in time. Smart QBs will get rid of it. So I think Stokes will help our pass defense more than a guy who has 10 sacks.

So the stuff about sacks and pressures means less to me than playing the run and preventing the QB from escaping the pocket.

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Coldworld's picture

July 21, 2021 at 03:38 pm

Fair point, but I think the answer is somewhere between

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Leatherhead's picture

July 21, 2021 at 04:13 pm

That’s where most answers are. I’m a Math guy, and I see that edge guy as a pass rusher on 35 plays and a run defender on 30. About half or more of the passes have the ball out of the QBs hands before any pressure is possible. So he’s really rushing about 15 times a game.

So it’s a smaller pool of plays where your pass rushing skills are a factor as opposed to stopping the run and keeping that QB from getting away. When the QB gets outside the pocket, the plays get extended, coverage breaks down, and the defense gives up big plays. These guys like Mahomes and Wilson make their living outside the pocket, but if you can contain them they either have to throw it to somebody who is covered or take the sack.

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porupack's picture

July 22, 2021 at 06:43 am

Astute point LHead, its all very, very connected....and Z's numbers can be back to 2019 with an above average CB, and improved coverage LB play. One half second more.

GB will face a few more mobile QBs this year; KMurray and LJackson and Mahommes, RWilson. Those are 4 very likely losses if Barry isn't working late night hours now. Pure talent just throwing out on the field GB 11 defense vs those four teams 11 offense with no coach or plan, we lose. Scheme/plan matters. Pettine/LaFleur were outcoached in the NFCCG, and not only that game.

But, that takes no responsibility off of Z, P and G. The Dlineman have the least excuses, and have to win their battles independently more than any other position on D IMO.

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jannes bjornson's picture

July 22, 2021 at 06:36 pm

And then von Neumann developed Game Theory and challenged predictable results.

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stockholder's picture

July 21, 2021 at 02:44 pm

Good write up Brandon. Nicely put.

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Lphill's picture

July 21, 2021 at 06:14 pm

The pressures and hits are sometimes more important than sacks .

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porupack's picture

July 22, 2021 at 06:47 am

Pressures without sacks lose potency. A couple of sacks early in the game rattles the QB the next time a body gets close. If no sacks interspersed, then the QB gets immune to pressure. Sacks matter. They hurt. Pressure doesn't make a QB wince every throw.

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jannes bjornson's picture

July 22, 2021 at 06:34 pm

Best to finish what you started.

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