Packers OLB Za’Darius Smith came up big last year against Saints

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“We’re hopeful,” head coach Matt LaFleur said of Za’Darius Smith’s availability for practice this week.

The Green Bay Packers’ premier edge rusher has been sidelined for the last three weeks while dealing with a lingering back injury. Smith has not missed a single game in his two seasons with the Packers but needs to take the necessary steps on the practice field to play against the New Orleans Saints in the opener.

“We’ll see if he can get out there and do some individual today. Yeah, we’re hopeful,” said LaFleur.

According to ESPN’s Rob Demovsky, Smith was indeed at Monday’s practice participating in group work. We should have a better idea of Smith’s availability against the Saints on Wednesday. That is when the team must release their first injury report for the regular season.

While Smith has been banged up a few times during his tenure with Green Bay, as noted previously, he has yet to miss a game. Over the last two seasons, Smith has played the fourth-most snaps on the Packers’ defense.

Not having Smith against New Orleans would be a huge blow to Green Bay’s pass rush. After all, he is the team’s most productive edge rusher, having led the defense in sacks and pressures in back-to-back seasons.

Smith also made one of the most crucial plays in last year’s meeting against the Saints. With the game tied at 27 at the start of the fourth quarter, New Orleans was threatening to score at the Packers’ 41-yard line. On this particular play, Taysom Hill was in at quarterback to replace Drew Brees.

On 2nd and 3, Hill faked the hand-off to running back Latavius Murray before keeping the ball on an option call. However, Smith was waiting for Hill almost instantaneously after getting into the backfield unblocked. Hill attempted to evade Smith but to no avail. Smith wrapped up Hill and was able to punch the ball loose. He then recovered the fumble, which set up a go-ahead 49-yard field goal by Mason Crosby.

Green Bay went on to defeat the Saints 37-30 in large part thanks to Smith’s momentum-shifting turnover.

Not having him for the 2021 season opener would be less than ideal but not insurmountable. The Packers do have Rashan Gary waiting in the wings in case Smith is unable to play. Gary is coming off a tremendous offseason and could become a real difference-maker during his third NFL season. Allowing Smith more time to heal would be a great opportunity for Gary, who is also due for more playing time.

However, not to discount Smith, the fact that he is practicing at the start of the week is a good sign. Even in a limited capacity, his presence on the field alone is something the Saints would have to account for.

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Packers 'hopeful' OLB Za'Darius Smith will practice ahead of Week 1