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Smiths talk lack of fans, need for improved run defense and more forced fumbles

Ryan Wood
Packers News

GREEN BAY - When the Green Bay Packers host the Detroit Lions in their Week 2 home opener this season, it will be the first time in decades they play a home game without a sellout crowd. Same for their second home game of the season. 

For players accustomed to crowd noise from the time they were in high school, and certainly later in college, the lack of fans will be a major change. 

Well, for most players at least. 

“It’s going to be kind of different getting used to not playing with our fans,” outside linebacker Preston Smith said, “but my first four years in the league, there wasn’t that many fans in the stadium anyway. So it might be kind of normal now again.” 

Smith was a second-round pick by Washington in 2015. Washington had a winning record in his first two seasons, and losing records in his last two, with a four-year record of 31-32-1. 

His claim was partially accurate. Washington averaged only 61,028 fans for eight home games in 2018, according to Pro Football Reference. That was Smith’s last season with the team. 

In his first three seasons, Washington ranked top six in the league each year with a high mark of fourth in 2016. That season, Washington’s 78,304 average announced attendance for home games was one spot better than the Packers, who ranked fifth with an average attendance of 78,215 per home game. The Packers ranked ahead of Washington each of the other three years. 

Fans celebrate an interception by Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Preston Smith (91) in the second quarter of the team's Sept 15 game against the Minnesota Vikings.

Smith was asked Friday about the other two items in the news regarding his former team: Washington’s name change and allegations of sexual harassment from team employees. 

Smith said he never saw any misconduct in his time with Washington. 

“When you’re walking into Washington,” he said, “you got football side and you got the office side. I was always on the football side. I didn’t really go to the office side unless I was doing something, somebody was escorting me over there through their department. I’ve never seen, and I’ve never witnessed it.” 

As for Washington changing its name, Smith indicated he wasn’t surprised. 

“That’s the way the world is going right now,” he said, “and being politically correct in a lot of senses. The name stood for something else, and with everything that’s going on right (now), it made sense to do the right thing.” 

Wounded run defense

It wasn’t just that the San Francisco 49ers rolled up the rushing yards like a video game in the NFC championship game last season that sat poorly this offseason, but how. 

Their game plan from the start was to attack the Packers at their strength. The 49ers ran directly at edge defenders Za’Darius and Preston Smith, daring to be stopped. They never were, finishing with 285 rushing yards. 

No, that didn’t sit well with the pair of 2019 breakout stars. 

“It was hard, you know,” Za’Darius Smith said, “coming out of that last game. In that championship game, they basically beat us because of the run game. They got on our edges. That’s something that we need to work on — basically me, Preston and everyone in that outside linebacker room, setting better edges. 

“For myself, I know I took that into the offseason and been working on that each and every day to get better at it.” 

Preston Smith said he didn’t dwell on the performance this offseason, but he hasn’t forgotten, either. 

The Packers ranked 23rd against the run, so their issues weren’t confined to one game. Still, it was never more glaring than in San Francisco, on the doorstep of Super Bowl LIV. 

“This year,” Preston Smith said, “we’re going to do a whole lot better in big-time games in stopping the run and getting off the field, and helping put our offense in better positions to score and get them turnovers and get great stops to put us in great position as a team.” 

Focused on fumbles

For a pair of teammates who ranked in the NFL’s top 10 in sacks, big plays were the norm for the Smiths last season. 

The duo combined for 25.5 sacks, more than any other teammates in the league. For Za’Darius, his 13.5 sacks led to the Pro Bowl. 

So it was a bit mystifying, considering how often the duo hit the quarterback last season, that the Smiths only combined to force two fumbles — one apiece. 

“Coach was just harping on that yesterday,” Za’Darius Smith said. “Like, we had so many attempts, but we didn’t get the chance to get the ball out. So he was saying, this year, man, I can see it. (Outside linebackers) coach Mike Smith, he said, ‘Man, I can see it this year coming, to where we’re going to have a ton of sack fumbles and forced fumbles.’ So I can’t wait, man, because coach is speaking it into existence.”