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In slimmer, more focused Preston Smith, Aaron Rodgers sees ‘a different person, I really do’

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49ers running back Trey Sermon is tackled by Packers outside linebacker Preston Smith in the first half of last Sunday's game in Santa Clara, Calif. 

GREEN BAY — Just as he had been during the final, game-winning drive against the San Francisco 49ers last Sunday night, Aaron Rodgers was looking for an opening.

This time, though, it was a conversational one he was seeking.

Get to know all nine players taken by the Green Bay Packers in the 2021 NFL Draft.

The Green Bay Packers quarterback, known for being intentional in his messaging and having reasons for most of what he says publicly, had entered his weekly meet-and-greet with reporters with the hope of mentioning the growth he’s seen from veteran outside linebacker Preston Smith this year. So, as he surveyed the media auditorium inside Lambeau Field, Rodgers waited for the opportunity, then got it with an out-of-the-blue question about the defense’s pass rush from one of the TV reporters in the back of the room.

And just as he had on his two last-minute throws to Davante Adams against the Niners, Rodgers didn’t miss.

“I’m really proud of Preston,” he began. “Preston’s come in after taking a pay cut and been a great teammate, a great leader, he’s practiced really well. Rashan (Gary, the team’s 2019 first-round pick), you’ve seen the growth every single year. You knew he was going to keep being an ascending player. But I am really proud of Preston, the way that he’s played and battled and led.”

Told the next day about what Rodgers had said about him, Smith smiled.

“You’re going to make me tear up in here,” Smith said. “That’s my quarterback.”

And now, with the other half of the famed Smith Bros., Za’Darius Smith, likely to miss most if not all of the rest of the season following back surgery at midweek, Preston Smith is the Packers’ most experienced pass rusher — and it’ll be up to him to pick up the slack.

“We know what’s expected of us, with or without Z,” said Smith, who through three games has registered nine tackles, one sack, five quarterback hits and a tackle for loss entering Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lambeau Field. “We’ve got to play at a high level. And we’ve got to do what it takes to help our team out and make sure we make impact plays to help the defense out and put us in great situations throughout the game.”

With the Packers having incentivized Smith’s reworked contract so he could recoup the roughly $4 million he gave up by taking a pay cut to return, he returned for the offseason program looking noticeably slimmer than he’d been last season.

The 6-foot-5, 265-pound Smith finished 2019, his first season in Green Bay after signing a four-year, $52 million deal to leave Washington, with 12 sacks and 55 quarterback pressures. But last season, he registered just four sacks and his pressures cratered to just 26.

Against the 49ers, Smith had three pressures and a tackle for loss, but when asked what the difference has been for him so far this season, he was at a loss.

“That’s a great question. I don’t know the answer to that,” Smith replied. “I guess I’m getting in rhythm a lot earlier this year than I was last year. You want your playmakers to get in a rhythm. I like to be in rhythm early, hitting some guys, getting some rushes in, getting a feel for the game, and then I can get in my flow and get in my zone and I can play the way I know I can play.”

Unlike his lost Smith brother, Preston has never missed a game in his NFL career, a testament to his durability and something the Packers will have to hope continues with Za’Darius out for perhaps the rest of the regular season, with some hope for a postseason return.

“I was told the best ability is availability, so I just try to make sure that I do what I have to do to be available and ready for each week and make sure I’m here for the team, but also myself,” Smith said. “Knock on wood.”

Smith has another thing going for him in 2021: new defensive coordinator Joe Barry, who was his coordinator in Washington during Smith’s first two NFL seasons in 2015 and 2016 and believes in him despite Smith coming off a decidedly down year.

“It’s cool Preston and I have a long relationship, but I’ve told him this before. I would expect him playing like this and doing what he’s been doing if Z was here because I think he has that type of ability and is that type of player,” Barry said. “He’s been doing a great job. We obviously expect a lot out of him. He’s a hell of a player.

“It’s been neat for me to be around Preston when he was a 22-year-old rookie, compared to six years later now, just to see how he’s grown up. He’s married now. He’s a father. He’s matured and grown up, both off the field and on the field. It’s been neat to see.”

For Rodgers, though, it’s been neater to see how far Smith has come as a leader and person, and he reiterated how impressive that growth has been during a phone call with the State Journal on Thursday evening.

“I see a different person. I really do,” Rodgers said as he drove home from Lambeau Field. “We had a long talk during one of our team-building events in training camp and I was just amazed. I was amazed at the things that were coming out of his mouth and the maturity that I saw from him. It’s so encouraging.

“I saw him come back in better shape and with a renewed attitude, and I’m really proud of him. That’s what bettering yourself looks like, and it’s really cool and it’s a great example for why to never give up on anybody. Not that I ever gave up on Preston, but believing in people and empowering people and building that love and trust and foundation. I’m really happy for guys like that.”

Valdes-Scantling put on IR

The Packers on Saturday said they put wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling on injured reserve due to the injured ankle he suffered in Sunday's win at San Francisco.

The Packers also said they had elevated wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown from the practice squad to the active roster for Sunday's game with the Pittsburgh Steelers as a COVID-19 replacement.

The injured reserve designation means that Valdes-Scantling must miss at least the Packers' next three games.

Valdes-Scantling has six catches for 76 yards and a touchdown this season. His lone touchdown came in the Packers' 30-28 triumph over the 49ers before he got hurt.

Meanwhile, a day after he was listed as questionable to play Sunday in Green Bay, Steelers wide receiver Chase Claypool was ruled out with a groin injury Saturday.

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