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Dougherty: With Za'Darius Smith sidelined, the Packers need Rashan Gary to blossom now


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GREEN BAY - Matt LaFleur’s injury luck is starting to wane.

Through an injury-conscious, less-is-more approach to practice and some good fortune on top of that, LaFleur’s Green Bay Packers were about as healthy as he could have hoped in his first two seasons as coach.

David Bakhtiari’s torn ACL the final week of last season was a big loss, but up to now he was the only key player LaFleur had lost long term. Now those injury prospects are looking a whole lot worse because of Za’Darius Smith’s ongoing back problems.

Smith landed on temporary IR this week, which means he’s out for at least the next three games. But it’s hard not to think it will be longer than that. After all, Smith missed all but one practice of training camp, returned only last week, played but 18 snaps against New Orleans on Sunday, and now is getting shut down for an undetermined time. Hardly a good sign of a fast return.

Neither the Packers nor Smith has specified his back injury nor how it happened. We only know that he sustained it in the offseason, because his failed physical landed him on the non-football injury list at the start of camp. But back injuries generally don’t just heal up and go away. They must be managed and are easily aggravated. At minimum it’s looking like the Packers are facing a season-long challenge keeping Smith on the field regardless of whether he returns in one month or three.

Do we even have to say what a big bite his absence, or diminishment if he plays while hurt, takes out of the Packers’ defense? He’s by far their best pass rusher and one of the best in the league, too. According to ESPN stats and info, via Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com, only two players in the league have more than Smith’s 114 quarterback pressures over the last two seasons: Aaron Donald (121) and Shaquil Barrett (119).

“He’s a guy you have to game plan for,” said an offensive assistant coach for an NFC team Friday. “I thought he was a problem. That’s good news for anybody who’s on Green Bay’s schedule until he comes back.”

Now, general manager Brian Gutekunst’s drafting of Rashan Gary looms larger than ever. Gutekunst spent an extremely valuable pick, No. 12 overall, in the 2019 draft on an outside linebacker who showed far more potential than production in college at Michigan. Gutekunst selected Gary because of his rare combination of size (6-5, 277 pounds) and explosiveness (4.58 40) even though Gary had only nine sacks in his final two college seasons combined. With Smith out for who knows how long, the Packers need Gary to blossom now.

Gary has continually improved in his two-plus years in the league, but if he’s going to become a difference maker, it’s probably this year or never. When Gutekunst talked in the preseason about a core of young players on defense who are about to “play their best football for the Green Bay Packers,” he very much was talking about Gary.

In team drills during camp, Gary was in the backfield and pressuring the passer more than in camp a year ago. Last season he had five sacks and 19 pressures (sacks, knockdowns and hurries, according to Pro Football Reference) while playing 44 percent of the Packers’ defensive snaps. That was up from two and five as a 24 percent player as a rookie. His curve has been steadily going up.

Coming out of camp, I was thinking it wouldn’t be a surprise if Gary had 10 sacks this season. But his start was shaky Sunday against the Saints. He twice broke free on rushes only to give up outside contain on his open path to the quarterback, which allowed Jameis Winston to scramble around him and pick up 11 and eight yards. Instead of two big plays for the Packers, they were two drive-continuing plays for the Saints. You’d think Gary would be past that kind of young-player’s mistake in his third season.

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Gary might be better suited playing with his hand down as an end in a four-man front, but Gutekunst and the Packers have been adamant he can be excellent standing up, too. His game is all power, in contrast to the outside speed rusher, Brian Burns, who went to Carolina four picks after Gary and has been the better player to date.

Burns (6-5, 250) has 10½ more sacks than Gary (17½  to seven) and 36 more pressures (62 to 26) in the same number of NFL games (32), though Burns also has played more too (1,275 snaps to Gary’s 737). Both had two pressures in their openers last week, though one of Burns’ was a sack. Clearly, Burns has been more impactful. This is the season Gary will prove Gutekunst right or wrong.

“Big, strong, powerful, fast,” said a scout who watched tape of Gary last season but not of the opener this year. “Not always instinctive or productive.”

If Gary doesn’t pick up a lot of the Smith slack, it only diminishes a Packers defense that was about average last year (No. 13 in points and passer rating allowed) and bombed opening week under new coordinator Joe Barry.

The Packers can only hope Smith’s injury won’t cost him half the season or more, and most importantly, won’t be a recurring problem when the money is on the line in December and January. His sterling injury history before this season – six games missed in six years, none the last three – is a good sign. The lack of progress with his back since the start of camp is a bad one.

Either way, the Packers have plenty riding on Gary. He, above anyone else on their defense, has the chance to be the equalizer, but only if he’s the player Gutekunst projected when he snapped him up at No. 12 overall three drafts ago.

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