Roughing penalty mars Za'Darius Smith's return to action for Packers

 GREEN BAY - On a day that featured a dearth of big plays, the biggest from the Green Bay Packers' defense didn’t even count. 

Za’Darius Smith broke through the middle of the New Orleans Saints' offensive line late in Sunday’s third quarter and took his shot. He hit quarterback Jameis Winston hard but clean, leading with his shoulder, wrapping both arms around Winston’s chest, careful not to land on the quarterback as they fell to the ground. 

It was a textbook hit, leading to what was ruled an end-zone interception for Darnell Savage Jr. Only one problem: Smith was called for a roughing-the-passer penalty, stunning because it appeared Smith had hit Winston within the strict confines of NFL rules protecting quarterbacks. 

When coach Matt LaFleur was asked after his team’s 38-3 loss what he thought of the penalty, he first chuckled under his breath in disgust. 

“Are you trying to get me in trouble?” he finally said. 

LaFleur said no more. You can read between the lines. 

Packers outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith participates in an OTA session in May.

That Smith even played Sunday, let alone made his presence known in the game, was surprising. A back injury had limited the two-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker to only four practices since the start of training camp in July. Only one had been in pads. That came Thursday, and Smith did not practice a day later. 

He was listed questionable on Friday’s injury report. 

The Packers were abundantly cautious with injuries to key starters all last season. Right tackle Billy Turner (knee), receiver Davante Adams (hamstring) and running back Aaron Jones (calf) all missed games for precautionary reasons even when they believed their injuries were minor enough to play. 

Smith played 18 snaps against the Saints. He did not start, nor was he first to rotate in off the sideline behind Preston Smith and Rashan Gary, instead playing behind backups Johnathan Garvin and Chauncey Rivers. Most of his snaps came in clear passing situations. 

LaFleur said the decision for Smith to play was based on how the veteran felt. Smith felt good Saturday night, LaFleur said, and was cleared to play after a workout Sunday before the game. 

“I thought Z, he did some really good things in that game,” LaFleur said. “Hopefully he’ll be able to practice a little bit more for us and be able to take more snaps in the game, because you can certainly feel his presence when he’s out there. I thought he played pretty physical, he made a couple splash plays in the run game. 

“I thought, you know, he hit Jameis on the pick, which I thought was pretty clean, but apparently the official disagreed.” 

Jordan Love mops up

It didn’t take Jordan Love long to get more snaps. 

After concluding the Packers' third preseason game, Love was not guaranteed any snaps for the rest of the year. He acknowledged as much after the preseason finale in Buffalo, saying he was prepared to become Aaron Rodgers’ backup. 

With the Packers getting blown out Sunday, Love played 15 snaps (25% of the total) against the Saints. He completed 5 of 7 passes for 68 yards, including a 32-yard completion to Randall Cobb, while finishing with a 102.1 passer rating. 

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He also fumbled when he misread the pocket and stepped into a sack against Saints defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon, who dislodged Love from the football. 

LaFleur said Love did “a lot of great things” in his limited snaps. He expects the young quarterback’s pocket awareness to improve with experience. 

“I thought he handled himself well,” LaFleur said. “Certainly, you don’t want to end it with the fumble in the red zone. I think that’s just one of those deals for the more he plays, the better feel he’ll get for the pocket and when to climb up, and when to kind of hitch in place. He kind of climbed in that pocket, and unfortunately it collapsed on him.” 

Injury updates

After a preseason free of any significant injuries, the Packers did not escape their opener unscathed. 

Safety Darnell Savage Jr. and tight end Josiah Deguara were unable to finish against the Saints. LaFleur said there is no long-term concern for Savage’s shoulder, though it’s too early to know if the safety will be available for Monday night’s game against the Detroit Lions 

“Hopefully with the extra day,” LaFleur said, “that will get us an opportunity to get him back for Monday night.” 

Deguara was on the field several minutes with a concussion before walking to the sideline without assistance. LaFleur would not provide details on why he required attention for so long on the field, or what state Deguara was in during that time. 

“I’m just happy that he was able to walk off the field,” LaFleur said, “and he seems to be in a much better place today.”