The Green Bay Packers put up solid sack numbers in 2020, but edge rusher Za’Darius Smith suffered a major setback in his production. The Packers’ top pass rusher had a breakout year in 2019, but his noticeable regression last season raised a lot of eyebrows. For this defense to reach its full potential in 2021, Green Bay needs Smith to have a closer resemblance to his 2019 form.
During the 2019 offseason, Smith signed a four-year, $66 million contract and wasted no time showing why it was the right decision. The former Baltimore Raven experienced a career year in which he set career highs in tackles, tackles for loss, quarterback hits, and sacks. He tied the NFL lead with 37 quarterback hits and, according to Pro Football Focus, led the NFL with 93 quarterback pressures.
Smith received a PFF grade of 90.2 for his 2019 campaign, which ranked second among all edge rushers.
Understandably, it was going to be hard for Smith to match his first-year success, but no one expected his play to have such a sharp decline.
Although Smith posted similar sack numbers last season, his overall impact was not nearly the same. He finished with only one fewer sack than his 2019 total, but his quarterback hits went from 37 to 23. Most coaches would agree that affecting the opposing quarterback at a higher rate holds more value than ending a play with a sack.
In 2019, Smith’s 93 pressures were astounding. It put him in the defensive player-of-the-year conversation and immediately made him one of the best defensive signings in the past decade. Unfortunately, Smith experienced a huge drop in his pressure rate from year one to year two with the Packers.
Per PFF, Smith finished last season with just 51 total pressures. This dropped his defensive grade from PFF to 76.7. Failing to consistently get after the opposing quarterback turned out to be a major culprit.
During his breakout season, Smith had seven games in which he recorded more than five pressures. Last season, Smith was nowhere near as consistent, finishing with more than five pressures in just two outings.
Green Bay does not necessarily need Smith to duplicate his 2019 production, but it would be beneficial for everyone involved if he impacted games with more regularity. If that means him finishing the year with closer to 70 pressures and fewer sacks, the Packers’ defense would certainly take it.
Brandon Carwile is a Packers writer who also enjoys watching and breaking down film. Follow him on Twitter @PackerScribe.