After not starting, Packers' Preston Smith shows he's starting to turn his season around
GREEN BAY - If the Chicago Bears lined up with two running backs instead of two tight ends on their first play Sunday night, nobody would have noticed anything different with the Green Bay Packers' defense.
There would be no controversy. No raised eyebrows. If the Bears were in their 12 personnel, instead of their 21 package, coach Matt LaFleur said Preston Smith would have been on the field.
The Packers' defense planned to trot out Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith as outside linebackers when the Bears had two running backs. They wanted Za’Darius Smith and Rashan Gary paired when the Bears had two tight ends.
At the line of scrimmage before their first snap, the Bears lined up tight ends Jimmy Graham and Cole Kmet on the right side of their offensive line. David Montgomery was the lone tailback in the backfield.
So for the first time since his rookie season in 2015, Preston Smith stayed on the sideline.
“I wouldn’t look too much into starting in the game of football,” LaFleur said. “It’s totally predicated what package goes out there. Specifically with our defense here, (coordinator Mike Pettine) likes to use a variety of personnel groupings. So a lot of it is dictated on what the offense presents.”
Pettine, too, chuckled Thursday when he mentioned how much attention is paid to which defenders start a football game. In truth, Preston Smith played two more snaps than Gary against the Bears, though his 45 snaps were a sharp decline from his 26 previous games with the Packers. That also might be expected. Even before the season, Pettine openly discussed wanting to limit Preston Smith’s snaps, keeping him fresh for January.
Even still, Preston Smith had started more than 75 straight games before finding himself on the sideline to open Sunday night. And even if the Bears’ 12 personnel had something to do with how the Packers defense started, it’s worth noting the Packers faced 12 personnel on the first play of their first two games this season, and Preston Smith was on the field for both.
Preston Smith said he didn’t take his nonstart, or position coach Mike Smith saying last week the veteran wasn’t rushing the way he wanted him to rush, as any sort of message. If it was mere coincidence that Smith followed with his most productive game of a disappointing 2020, the Packers will take it. Preston Smith, who entered with only 1.5 sacks this season, finally added to his total with a sack of Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky in the third quarter.
In the first half, Preston Smith scooped up a Trubisky fumble after Za’Darius Smith had jarred the football loose on a sack, returning it 14 yards into the end zone for a touchdown.
“I don’t look at the stuff that’s being said,” Preston Smith said. “I don’t hear about all that stuff. It (isn’t) brought to my attention a lot of times. So I don’t know what (Mike Smith) said, I just go out there and play. I do what I’m coached to do. I do what I’m asked each and every week.”
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The Packers likely don’t care what Preston Smith does or doesn’t use as motivation, so long as he builds off Sunday night’s breakout game.
When he’s at his best, Preston Smith’s pass rush lifts the Packers' defense to another level. While Za’Darius Smith ranks fifth in the NFL with nine sacks this season, the Packers haven’t generated the same consistent rush on opposing quarterbacks as last fall. Preston Smith’s 2.5 sacks a year after finishing with a dozen is a big reason for the decline.
Perhaps Preston Smith started to turn his season around last Sunday. If he can build off what he did against the Bears, the Packers' defense will be better for it.
“He played really well,” LaFleur said. “He was one of our players of the game. It was just because he got a sack or a scoop and score. There was a lot of little things he did that, where he just showed that physicality, he showed great effort, did his responsibility. That’s all we’re asking for, for all these guys, is, hey, play as hard as you can every play, do your responsibility, and hopefully, I think, more than likely, when you are doing that, good things are going to happen to you, and that’s exactly what transpired Sunday night.”