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Packers pass rushers Preston Smith, Rashan Gary grow into consistent playmakers

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GREEN BAY – When Za’Darius Smith’s season ended after only 18 snaps, back surgery claiming the second-team All-Pro’s next four months for rest and recovery, the Green Bay Packers' pass rush easily could have been finished.

It was a thin position to begin with, only three veteran edge rushers with Smith leading the way. One of them, Preston Smith, was coming off a demoralizing season that required he take a pay cut to stay with the Packers. Another, Rashan Gary, had shown only flashes of potential through two seasons.

No other Packers outside linebacker had played more than 100 snaps in a season.

There was no guarantee the Packers' edge rush could withstand Za’Darius Smith’s season-long absence. Not only have the Packers prevented their edge rush from being a weakness, steadily improving throughout the season, but it has featured a pair of consistent playmakers in Preston Smith and Gary.

“We’re just trying to show the NFL we’re the best duo,” Gary said after both had a sack in Sunday night’s game against the Minnesota Vikings.

That claim is a bit too lofty in a league that features Los Angeles Rams duo Aaron Donald and Leonard Floyd, Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward, even Arizona’s Markus Golden and Chandler Jones. Still, Gary isn’t far off. If the Packers don’t have the NFL’s best pass-rushing duo, they have one of the league’s most productive.

Gary has emerged as a star this season with 9.5 sacks, 2.5 more than the former 12th overall draft pick had combined in his first two years. Preston Smith has responded to his pay cut with one of his most productive seasons, entering this week’s finale at the Detroit Lions with nine sacks. Though other tandems throughout the league are close and have a chance to reach the milestone Sunday, no team had a pair of pass rushers with double-digit sacks.

“It wouldn’t have shocked me,” outside linebackers coach Mike Smith said when asked about Gary and Preston Smith’s production. “Both those guys, I think, are the best in the league. “

Gary’s rise isn’t entirely surprising. He was a top-15 draft pick for a reason. Since he arrived as a rookie, Gary’s athleticism was apparent in one-on-one drills. He would dominate offensive linemen in open space, but that talent took time to translate to 11-on-11.

His progression through three seasons is a natural path for young pass rushers. He had 2 sacks as a rookie, 5 last season and has exploded for 9.5 in his third year. His 28 quarterback hits are tied with Jonathan Allen for fifth most in the NFL, behind only Watt (36), Cleveland’s Myles Garrett (31), Dallas’ Micah Parsons (30) and San Francisco’s Nick Bosa (30).

“Rashan is a great player,” Preston Smith said. “He’s a hell of a guy, and he’s a hell of a player. He works hard. He’s willing to come in and learn each and every day. He’s always receptive to information, and he’s always willing to do whatever it takes to get an edge or get better.”

Preston Smith’s resurgence is different. A year ago, after he recorded only four sacks in 2020, the Packers trimmed his salary $4 million, but gave him a chance to earn it all back with incentives. If Smith gets one more sack to reach 10 this season, he will get $2 million. He has already earned $1.25 million by reaching the eight-sack threshold in 2021.

“I don’t pay attention to the incentives,” Smith said. “That’s why I hire an agent and a team of guys to handle stuff like that, the off-the-field stuff, and I just worry about the on-the-field stuff. I know I’m expected to play at a high level and to make plays each and every game. Regardless of the stats or whatever, I just try to do what I can to affect the opposing team, quarterback and their offense any way I can and let the rest play out for itself.”

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The Packers haven’t had a dominant pass rush. They’re middle of the pack in the NFL with 38 sacks this season, tied with the Dallas Cowboys for 13th in the league.

Even being that close to the top 10 is surprising given all the Packers lost when Za’Darius Smith’s season was limited to just 18 snaps. The pass rush could have been in shambles without their two-time Pro Bowler. Za’Darius Smith had 26 sacks combined the past two seasons, but none this year. A blossoming Gary and bounce-back Preston Smith ensured the Packers would provide enough edge rush to present a formidable defense.

On Sunday, the duo has a chance to do something perhaps none other in the league will match, both reaching double digits in sacks for 2021.

“I’ve got Rashan over there,” Preston Smith said. “He’s making it tough to lead the team in sacks. I’m chasing him. We’re competing every day, every game."

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