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With Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Rashan Gary, Packers believe pass rush is ‘in a great place’
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With Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Rashan Gary, Packers believe pass rush is ‘in a great place’

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Packers linebacker Rashan Gary is looking to improve on his 39 pressures and five sacks last season.

GREEN BAY — There are only two options, really: Either Rashan Gary is going to have to change his last name, or the Green Bay Packers’ pass-rushing crew is going to have to find a new moniker.

Perhaps a law-firm approach is in order. You know, Smith, Gary and Smith — “You don’t pay, only quarterbacks do.”

Because the duo formerly known as the “Smith Bros.” is clearly going to be a trio in 2021 — and potentially a really, really good one if Gary’s offseason showing is any indication of his growth (given that he might’ve looked the best of any defensive player during open organized team activity practices and minicamp), if Preston Smith bounces back (as he’s been known to do in odd-numbered NFL seasons) and Za’Darius Smith continues to be a force to be reckoned with (while drawing motivation from snubs real and imagined).

“All three of those guys, I’m excited about,” said new defensive coordinator Joe Barry, who installed his scheme during OTAs and minicamp. “It’s great. Whether we have two of them on the field, all three of them on the field, we’ll get creative and have some fun with it.

“You can’t have enough great pass rushers, and I’m excited to be working with all three of those guys. All three of those guys are in a great place.”

That wasn’t necessarily the case last season, when Za’Darius made his second straight Pro Bowl and had his second straight double-digit sack season but saw his pressure numbers drop; Preston’s numbers cratered from 2019, leading to a pay cut; and Gary took a meaningful step forward after a nondescript rookie year.

Start with Za’Darius Smith, who was named second-team All-Pro last season despite a small dip in his regular-season sack numbers from 2019 (from 13.5 to 12.5) and an appreciable dip in his quarterback pressures, the statistic he himself has said is the most important (from an NFL-high 93 to 51, according to Pro Football Focus).

That dip in pressures led PFF to leave him off its list of the NFL’s 10 best pass rushers, which Za’Darius Smith took personally and outside linebackers coach Mike Smith was thrilled to read, knowing the impact it would have on his star.

“They just going to continue to snub me. They’re still snubbing me,” Za’Darius Smith said. “It is what it is. I feel like it adds fuel to the fire, and I’m going to continue to prove myself.”

It’s Preston Smith who must prove himself, having seen his production drop precipitously in both sacks (from 12 to four) and quarterback pressures (from 55 to 26) last season. To return, he accepted a restructured contract that will pay him $4 million less than he was slated to make in 2021 but will allow him to earn that money back through sack-based incentives.

He will receive a $500,000 bonus for recording six sacks; an additional $750,000 for reaching eight sacks; another $750,000 for reaching 10 sacks; another $1.2 million if he records 12 sacks; and another $1.2 million if he reaches 14 sacks.

In a statistical oddity, of the 40.5 regular-season sacks Preston has recorded in his six-year NFL career, 28 have come in odd-numbered seasons (eight in 2015, eight in 2017, 12 in 2019) while only 12.5 have been in even-numbered years (4.5 in 2016, four in 2018 and four last year).

To his credit, he looked slimmer during the OTA practices he attended before missing the mandatory minicamp after landing in the COVID-19 protocol.

“Man, I’m happy to have ‘P’ back,” Za’Darius Smith said. “Whatever was going on with the situation, I don’t know. … But ‘P’ is a guy who is all-in.

“We can’t wait to get him back, and ‘P’ is a guy to keep everybody going in the meeting rooms. When people are down, he’s the guy that’s keeping us laughing, keeping us encouraged on and off the field. So it’ll be good to get ‘P’ back when we come for training camp. Can’t wait to get him back, man — the Smith Bros.”

Well, not so fast.

While Preston struggled last season, Gary’s snap counts skyrocketed, and the former No. 12 overall pick looked sharp during helmets-and-shorts offseason practices over the past six weeks as he looked to parlay his strong finish a year ago into a breakout Year 3.

Gary finished last season with 39 quarterback pressures and five sacks, second only to Za’Darius Smith in both categories. And Gary was arguably the Packers’ best defensive player in the team’s NFC divisional win over the Los Angeles Rams, registering seven quarterback pressures and 1.5 sacks.

“I’m not done. While I did make a lot of jumps, I’m still hungry and there’s still room to improve,” Gary said. “I’m taking strides day by day. I’m trying to get better day by day. That’s my mindset — just keeping everything full throttle from last year, not trying to slow down. Not one bit.”

All this happy talk notwithstanding, there are plenty of ifs here, too — if Barry’s system is more effective than that of his predecessor, Mike Pettine; if Za’Darius sustains his level of play while seeking a contract extension in the third year of his four-year, $66 million free agent deal from 2019; if a slimmer Preston leads to a more productive one; if Gary elevates his game even higher.

But as far as Mike Smith (no relation to the other Smiths) is concerned, the potential is there.

“I don’t want to get too much into what we’re doing, but I think you saw a lot of it the last couple years. And Joe saw some stuff that we were doing,” said Smith, who remained on staff despite head coach Matt LaFleur parting ways with Pettine after Pettine’s contract expired following the team’s NFC Championship Game loss to Tampa Bay.

“And it’s not just those three guys. I’ve got a lot of guys that can play in my room. Everybody’s asking, ‘(All these) players, how are you going to get ‘em on the field?’ Well, you need that many pass rushers and guys of their size and strength. I was actually thinking about it this morning, how grateful I am for my room. I got a bunch of tough, mean, nasty dudes.”

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