In Sunday’s tilt against the Detroit Lions, perhaps the most crucial moment of the game was Chandon Sullivan turning a bad Matthew Stafford pass into a momentum-turning pick-6. From that moment, the Packers defense shook off its lethargy and prevented the Lions from mounting a comeback.
It won’t pop up on a stat sheet the same way, but that interception wouldn’t have happened without the efforts of Rashan Gary. The 2019 twelfth overall pick trucked towards Stafford, forcing Stafford to throw the ball as Gary collapsed on him. The same thing happened in Week 1 with a classic Kirk Cousins interception. Gary is feeling froggy in year two as he’s taken a big leap to become one of the best Packer defenders through two weeks.
After investing in two star edge rushers earlier in the offseason, Gary was a bit of a controversial pick: a ‘project’ of a player for one of the earliest picks the Packers had in years. Gary saw little playtime as a rookie, and while he improved as the season went on, he didn’t look like a top-15 draft pick yet.
Gary showed up to 2020 training camp a new man. He’d gained weight but slimmed down, the product of an NFL offseason training. Training camp reports constantly mentioned Gary as a hungry, driven player who improved on every aspect of his game.
Gary carried that momentum through the first two games of the season. He leads Mike Pettine’s defense with four quarterback hits and has the second-most sacks (1.5) after Za’Darius Smith. Gary was the wrecking ball on both of the Packers’ interceptions, making plays even when they don’t show up on the stat screen. Gary has been one of the Packers’ best defenders while only playing just over 50% of defensive snaps (62% Week 1, 56% Week 2).
No one has been a more vocal supporter of Gary than his position coach, Mike Smith. “He might be the best one in the room setting the edge and playing the run. I mean, he’s a violent kid. That’s why I’ll always have faith in Rashan, because we all know he’s athletic. Period. There ain’t no doubt about that. He’s meaner than a rattlesnake, I’m telling you. Guys like that, they don’t fail,” Smith said in training camp interviews.
Smith is a big proponent of disrupting the quarterback through any means. Sacks aren’t the only way for an edge rusher to pop (though Gary did record a career-high 1.5 against Detroit). Gary was clearly listening, and his effort shows on every play.
Speaking of Smiths, Gary had the good fortune to learn from two savvy veterans in Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith. Rather than being thrown into the trenches, Gary was able to learn from two experienced players, surely a boon for his growth.
After Sunday’s game, Gary said of the ‘Smith Bros’,. “I can’t not put my best foot forward, because when I look to my left and look to my right, I got two brothers with me that’s ready to go to war.”
The Packers’ patience with Rashan Gary seems like it paid off. The draft should always be about a player’s potential, not who they can be as a rookie. It took a bit longer than many Packers fans would have liked, but Gary learned the right lessons and could be on his way to a meteoric rise. Gary has been one of the Packers’ best defensive players through two weeks, and his future is bright.
Matt Hendershott is a Packers fan and Miller High Life enthusiast from Northwest Ohio. He has a Master of Arts in Media and Communication from Bowling Green State University. You can follow him on Twitter @MattHendershott.