Packers know Jaylon Smith will need to get up to speed in new system
GREEN BAY - Inside linebacker Jaylon Smith officially became a member of the Green Bay Packers on Thursday, arriving at the facility and signing a one-year minimum wage deal.
As quickly as the deal went down – Smith was informed of his release from the Dallas Cowboys on Tuesday evening – it will be a while before he shows up on defense.
Coach Matt LaFleur and defensive coordinator Joe Barry said it will take time for Smith to learn a different system that uses different terminology and requires different techniques than what he was used to in Dallas.
Neither could say how they thought Smith might be used.
“I just think he’s a veteran guy that's played at a really high level and can bring kind of a mentality and leadership to our defense,” LaFleur said. “But certainly he's going to be behind quite a bit being the fact that we're heading into Week 5 and it's a totally different system.
“So, there's going to be a lot of work that needs to be put in.”
The Packers have a roster full of inside linebackers and Barry has been using four of them – De’Vondre Campbell, Krys Barnes, Owen Burks and Ty Summers – in different combinations throughout the season.
Against Pittsburgh on Sunday, there was a package in which Campbell, Burks and Summers were on the field together, resulting in Campbell playing all 60 defensive snaps, Burks playing 36 and Summers playing nine. Barnes did not play because he was recovering from a concussion, but he is expected to be back in the starting lineup this weekend against Cincinnati.
The Packers also have rookie Isaiah McDuffie, who has played only on special teams.
General manager Brian Gutekunst made the decision to sign Smith despite the depth he has at inside linebacker. Smith came cheap because his $7.2 million salary is fully guaranteed by the Cowboys and so the Packers will only have to pay him $770,000 if he is on the roster the entire season.
That figure is the pro-rated portion (14 weeks left in the season) of a $990,000 veteran minimum base salary.
A Pro Bowl selection in 2019, Smith was viewed by the Cowboys as a declining player who was starting to show the effects of a catastrophic knee injury he suffered during his senior year at Notre Dame that caused him to miss his entire rookie season.
“He's definitely not what he used to be,” an NFC personnel director said. “He doesn't strike and shed blockers well. He gets bounced around too often. He makes most of his plays in lateral chase.
“He has good speed once he gets going but I'm not sure that knee is in great shape. He has a hitch in his stride. He’s not a bad player but not worth what Dallas was paying him.”
Barry said he really liked the personnel he had at inside linebacker and that’s why he had been using them more than a typical NFL defense would. Most teams replace one of their inside linebackers with a cornerback on second and third downs, but Barry consistently uses two and sometimes three.
Barry said the hardest part for Smith will be learning the terminology the Packers use to define coverages, blitzes and alignments. He said it takes a full offseason to fully grasp a new defense and pointed out that even as well as Campbell is playing in his first season in Green Bay, they would have liked to have signed him earlier than June 9.
“Football is football,” he said, reciting various standard coverages. “It’s the same no matter what playbook you’re in, but we might call it apples here and in Dallas he’s called it oranges his whole time. So, you’ve got to transfer that over in your mind from a terminology standpoint.
“That’s the biggest thing in today’s football when you’re going from system to system.”
A field-goal flaw
Packers special teams coordinator Maurice Drayton does not expect the protection issues from the right side of the Packers' field-goal unit to continue.
The Packers got away with what appeared to be a clean field-goal block against the Pittsburgh Steelers near the end of Sunday's first half. The play was called back because of an offside penalty, but video replay appeared to show it was legal. Coach Matt LaFleur said the right side needed to be shored up, especially after the San Francisco 49ers had almost blocked Mason Crosby's game-winning kick from that side one week earlier.
Drayton got the message. He said he was thankful the play did not hurt his team, while also exposing what needed to be fixed.
"Isn't it awesome when things can occur," Drayton said, "and guys are able to see it, and it actually didn't hurt you? It was a teachable moment, a learnable moment, for everyone on that unit. So it was kind of an 'ah' moment where the guys were like, 'Wow, this is what coach was talking about?' And it's fixed."
Then Drayton added, referring to opposing teams: "Oh, they're going to test our temperature to make sure it is fixed."
The biggest issue has been the need for holder Corey Bojorquez to vary snap counts so opponents do not have a predictable tell to get a jump off on the play.
Let's get physical
Defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery got an "I-told-you-so" moment with young lineman Kingsley Keke on Sunday.
Montgomery said he has been "begging and pleading" with Keke to be more physical with his rushes. Keke instead has a tendency to rely on his athleticism. Early in the second quarter, Keke used a bull rush to arrive at Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger before he threw, knocking the ball away for a momentum-changing strip sack.
"What was nice," Montgomery said, "is he had a couple power rushes in that game. Super athletic and quick and twitchy, but we've got to get him to start being more direct, and he did that. The result of that was a huge play, which was awesome. Because as a coach, you're like, 'I told you so.' So the more he can continue to do those things, the more it's going to help him out all around in his game."
While Jaire Alexander's injury has dominated the team's attention this week, the Packers are also disappointed with a knee injury that placed backup outside linebacker Chauncey Rivers on injured reserve, likely ending his season.
Rivers had only played 54 snaps on defense this season, adding another 44 reps on special teams, but he had already come much further than the team expected. Defensive coordinator Joe Barry said Rivers was expected to be a practice squad player at the start of camp. Instead, he played his way onto the 53-man roster. When Za'Darius Smith dropped out because of a back injury that required surgery, Rivers took advantage and was starting to carve a role for himself on the defense.
"What a great story," Barry said. "A kid we signed basically as just a camp body, and just busted his tail and with Z's injury really became, we kind of had him earmarked as more of a practice squad guy, but with Z getting banged up, bam, he not only makes the team. ...
"Chauncey earned that (trust). Whether it was 10, 12, 15 snaps a game, he went in and did a great job for us."