Packers put Za’Darius Smith on IR: Can defense survive without?

The Green Bay Packers have placed star pass-rusher Za’Darius Smith on IR with a lingering back injury but can their defense survive without him?

Identifying a need to upgrade their pass rush, the Green Bay Packers made big splashes in 2019 free agency to sign Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith. The latter has been a solid veteran but the former has been a star off the edge for them. But after limited usage in Week 1, it’s now apparent why that was the case as the franchise has placed Za’Darius Smith on IR.

Smith has reportedly been dealing with a back injury that simply has not been healing and causing the outside linebacker discomfort. Rather than trying to get him to play through that and potentially making things worse, the Packers elected to give him time away from the field to rehab and recover to hopefully return and be the star he’s been for Green Bay since arriving.

And to that point, Smith has indeed been a star. Since the start of the 2019 season, Smith has the third-most QB pressures in the NFL with 114. The only two players he’s behind are probably familiar ones: Aaron Donald (121) and Shaquil Barrett (119).

Subsequently, this isn’t just a minor loss — it’s one that could be critical for the Packers defense moving forward. And while many people expect them and Green Bay as a whole to bounce back from an embarrassing 38-3 loss to the Saints in Week 1, can the defense survive without Smith on the field?

Za’Darius Smith’s absence for the Packers puts the spotlight on Rashan Gary.

With Za’Darius Smith limited in Week 1, we got a good look at Rashan Gary, who played 36 snaps for the Packers. The third-year pro and former first-round pick looked good as he registered the 24th best grade among 65 qualifying edge rushers around the NFL in Week 1, per PFF (subscription required).

Gary does not have nearly the experience nor the proven talent of Smith. However, he has immense physical tools, hence why the big-bodied and versatile edge rusher was a first-round pick out of Michigan, despite not being overly productive in college. He’s a freak who can make plays.

The pass rush is critical to the success of the Green Bay defense. For as good as Jaire Alexander is, the back seven of the defense has some weak points that can be attacked. Putting pressure on the quarterback, however, helps to negate any issues. Thus, losing Smith will hurt.

With that said, Gary and Preston Smith can help mitigate that loss by stepping into and stepping up with bigger roles off the edge. Whether or not they’re able to do so could be the difference between business as usual for the Packers and Aaron Rodgers having to be a supernova on offense for the team to recapture success.