There was a welcome sight at practice for the Green Bay Packers today.
Linebacker Za’Darius Smith has been designated for return from IR, and was back at practice for the first time since the week leading into the Packers’ first game of the regular season.
Smith’s back had been giving him problems during training camp and he was only able to play 18 snaps in Week 1 before leaving the game. He has not played since, undergoing back surgery in October.
Safe to say hHe was very excited to be back on the field.
In 2019, the Packers signed Smith, a 2015 fourth-round draft pick by the Baltimore Ravens, to a 4-year, $66 million deal — $20 million guaranteed. It was an outstanding investment. Smith recorded 12-plus sacks in each of his previous seasons with the Packers and has 60 quarterback hits in total. He also forced four fumbles in 2020.
Jaire Alexander is also back on the field for the Packers. He suffered a shoulder injury against the Steelers in Week 4 and went on IR. There was a chance that he could’ve played in the Packers’ regular-season finale against the Detroit Lions on Sunday, but he was not able to get in enough practice time after spending time on the COVID-19 reserve list.
Top pass-rusher and top cornerback, those will certainly be welcome additions to a defense that has struggled at times this season. They have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs for the second season in a row, but for them to get to the Super Bowl, consistent play from their defense is a must. The Packers finished the regular season ranked 22nd in the league in defense DVOA.
The playoffs are obviously the most important time of the year for an NFL team, but for the Packers this might be their most important playoff run in franchise history. They’ve been a stable franchise for nearly 30 years, mostly due to Hall of Fame caliber play at quarterback. That stability was threatened with the struggle during the offseason to get Aaron Rodgers to return to the team. He did, and played well enough to likely earn himself a second-consecutive MVP, but 2021 is supposed to be his final season in Green Bay.
Green Bay drafted their quarterback of the future in Jordan Love in 2020, but in his two opportunities at extended play this season, it looks like the Packers need to delay their future plans for as long as possible. That means they need to convince Rodgers to stay in Green Bay, and ride him until he starts to play like Ben Roethlisberger did this year for the Steelers.
A Super Bowl championship may not be enough to convince Rodgers to stay, but what surely won’t bring him back in 2022 is another disappointing playoff loss. For the Packers to avoid that, the defense is going to have to carry their share of the load during the postseason. Of the 10 best offenses in the NFL, per DVOA, five of them are in the NFC playoffs, and the 11th best offense is the Philadelphia Eagles.
With a bye week, and Smith and Alexander on the field for the first time since before the start of the Major League Baseball playoffs, the Packers’ defense has a fighting chance to slow down those offenses and give their second-ranked offense the opportunity to get them to Los Angeles for Super Bowl LVI. That means head coach Matt LaFleur had better not send out the field-goal unit if he’s down eight points on 4th-and-goal with less than three minutes remaining in the game, and Smith needs to live in opposing backfields.