Former Packers linebacker Za'Darius Smith has the game he envisioned in Minnesota's win over Green Bay
Za’Darius Smith signed with Minnesota for this game, this performance. The former Green Bay Packers linebacker wanted to play his old team twice a year and joined the Vikings for the opportunity to be a menace to Aaron Rodgers. On Sunday, he did just that.
Smith finished with two tackles and a sack and two quarterback hurries as the Vikings punched the Packers in the mouth, winning 23-7 in the season opener.
Smith set the tone for the Vikings defense and made an early statement on the Packers' second offensive drive of the day. Facing third-and-8 from the Minnesota 40-yard line, Rodgers dropped back, waiting for Randall Cobb on a crossing route. Smith, lined up to rush on the passing play, pushed second-year lineman Jake Hanson back into the pocket. Once there, it was easy work for Smith to wrap up his former teammate, delivering the first of four sacks Rodgers would take Sunday.
“My biggest concern with Z was just would he be too hyped up,” Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell said after the game. “But Z, it was fun to watch him play today, have that kind of success and really enjoy himself out there, and I think he got all of us going a little bit.”
In a move that was once endearing to Packers fans, Smith dropped to the ground and army-crawled to midfield in celebration. The power, physicality and jubilance were all familiar to those in green-and-gold, even if unwelcome Sunday.
“I think (he had) a tremendous impact,” coach Matt LaFleur said. “We knew Z was going to be amped up and ready to go. And he’s a great player. We got to witness that first hand for a couple of years. He made a huge impact in our football team and our ability to win games.
“It does make it tough when there’s two creatures out there that looked pretty good.”
More often than not during the day, there looked to be a swarm of those creatures in the backfield. No time more so than on the Packers' first drive of the third quarter. Looking for something, anything, to get back into what was at that time a 17-0 game, Rodgers broke on a scramble after Smith came unblocked into the backfield. The linebacker chased Rodgers into a sack from Jordan Hicks.
When the dust cleared, Rodgers lay supine on the field with trainers hovering over and the Vikings walked away with the ball. Hicks was credited with the sack and forced fumble, but both LaFleur and Rodgers gave the nod to Smith for the turnover, with Rodgers also explaining the breakdown that allowed Smith to get unleashed.
“The play was a good play and we totally blocked it wrong," Rodgers said. "You know, we're supposed to block a certain way. Z came basically untouched and the back had to block him, I had a roll to the left
“If we just block it the way we know we're supposed to block it, there's gonna be an opportunity to take a shot down the field. We don’t, I gotta move, I should throw it away, I don’t, I fumble, they take the ball back, get three points.”
Said LaFleur: “He had the huge sack-fumble. He’s a guy that you’ve got to account for every play.”
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The Packers' only touchdown drive Sunday unfolded in large part thanks to their accounting for Smith, and provided the smallest glimpse into the relationships Smith established in Green Bay.
Just outside the red zone, at the Vikings 22-yard line, Rodgers flipped the ball to rookie Romeo Doubs on an end-around. Then the back-to-back MVP and 18-year veteran took off as a lead blocker, lowering his shoulder against a rushing Smith. The collision flipped Rodgers to the ground, but provided enough of a road block for Doubs to pick up 11 yards. Two plays later, the Packers scored.
Cameras caught Rodgers and Smith jawing after the play, with Smith looking impressed Rodgers took him on, before both laughed while walking away. It was the only commentary Rodgers would provide on his former teammate.
Asked after the loss how he thought Smith played, Rodgers kept his comments short.
“I don’t really have any comment on Za’Darius," Rodgers said.
Smith left Green Bay and went to Minnesota with one goal: to play the Packers twice a year and sack Aaron Rodgers. He did just that on Sunday, proving dangerous opposite his old team.
"Just being able to come on the other side and do it to my quarterback. It feels great," Smith said. "The energy was there. My teammates had my back, and they knew what time it was."