GREEN BAY — Rashan Gary’s time has apparently come.
With veteran outside linebacker Preston Smith’s production lagging and Gary surging, the Green Bay Packers coaches appear ready to increase Gary’s playing time — presumably at the expense of Smith’s.
Asked Friday afternoon about Gary’s productivity and Smith’s apparent regression, coach Matt LaFleur replied, “I think (Gary) has done a great job. He’s done everything we’ve asked. … Certainly, (I’d) like to see him out there more and more. I think he’s earned it. He gives great effort, brings a lot of energy and has been productive. In that regard, you always want productive players out there.
“As far as Preston, Preston has had some great moments. Certainly, there’s been some times where it’s not up to his standard. We’re going to continue to push. I know he’s been working hard in practice and hopefully that’ll translate to the game.”
Entering Sunday night’s game against the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field, Smith has played 508 of the Packers’ 631 defensive snaps (80.5%) this season. Gary, meanwhile, has played only 263 snaps (41.7%).
And yet, Gary’s limited snaps have yielded more production than Smith’s, even though Smith was a field-tilting player last season after signing a four-year, $52 million free-agent deal as part of the Packers’ defensive overhaul.
“It’s been tough for Preston. I think he’d be the first one to tell you that he’s not getting the results that he wants,” defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said. “I just know he wants to be great, and there are times where sometimes something’s a little bit off and then all of a sudden that gets in your head and you start trying to press too much. We have confidence in him and we’re (still) going to put him out there, especially in critical situations.”
As for Gary deserving more opportunities, Pettine said that “it’s pretty obvious that he’s been playing very consistently at a high level,” and that he considers Gary to be a “starter,” even if he’s not listed as one on the depth chart. The Packers do like to use a sub package in obvious passing situations in which both Smiths and Gary are on the field, with Za’Darius roaming and lining up inside more frequently.
“In all the packages that we run, (Gary) is a starter in some of them. He’s really been a bright spot for us this year,” Pettine said. “It’s great when you see a guy that put the work in in the offseason, especially in an offseason where you were essentially on your own. He didn’t have the spring structure with us and all the learning stuff was virtual, but the workout stuff, he just came in in such good shape.
“It’s such a great example for the other players that that the work you put in pays off. The jump that he’s taken from Year 1 to Year 2, and the success that we’ve had this year, he’s been a big part of it. And I’m sure he’ll continue to be.”
Last season, Preston and Za’Darius Smith, who also signed a lucrative free-agent deal (four years, $66 million) — combined for 25.5 sacks (Za’Darius 13.5, Preston 12), 108 quarterback pressures (Za’Darius 65, Preston 43) and 80 quarterback hits (Za’Darius 51, Preston 29). Gary, with limited opportunities, had two sacks, 19 pressures and seven quarterback hits.
In fairness, the Packers’ pass-rush batting average is down team-wide this season. Za’Darius Smith, despite recording eight sacks (tied for fifth-most in the NFL), has seen his pressure numbers drop off, too. While he has always emphasized pressures over sacks as a measure of his effectiveness, his pressure numbers are down, too.
“You know me, I’m more of a pressure guy,” Za’Darius Smith said. “We talked about it last year with me and Preston. Who wants sacks and who’d rather have quarterback hits and pressures? I was the guy that wanted all the pressures and quarterback hits. It hasn’t been how I want it to this year.”
Nevertheless, Preston Smith’s drop-off has been worse. According to Pro Football Focus, he has had 230 pass-rushing snaps, which have resulted in 15 pressures and two sacks. Gary, by comparison, has had 171 pass-rushing snaps — so 59 fewer than Smith — but has registered 22 pressures and three sacks.
ESPN Stats & Information, meanwhile, tracks something called “Pass Rush Win Rates.” Through 10 games last season, Smith had a win rate of 26.1% and had registered 21 pressures. This season? According to their grading system, Smith’s win rate is 15.4%, and they’ve credited him with only six pressures. The same grading system had Rashan Gary with only two pressures and a 6.2% win rate through 10 games last year, and this year ESPN has him with a 14.3% win rate and 13 pressures — more than double the pressures they’ve credited to Smith.
“The thing with Preston is just staying positive, staying focused. He’s not rushing the way I want him to rush right now,” outside linebackers coach Mike Smith said. “He’s got to get better rushing, and he knows that. I talked to him today about it. He’s got to stick with the plan and not get frustrated with everything that’s going on around him.”
Easily Gary’s biggest supporter in the building, Mike Smith said this week of Gary, “Since the day he walked in the building, you knew there was something special. … Right now, he’s doing a great job with the run, he’s affecting the quarterback. He’s playing really good football right now. The game’s slowing down for him. I couldn’t be more proud of him. The more we get going, the more reps he’s going to get. And he deserves more reps.”
The Packers listed seven players as questionable for Sunday night: Center Corey Linsley (back); No. 3 receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling (Achilles’); cornerback Kevin King (Achilles’); inside linebacker Kamal Martin (neck); cornerback Josh Jackson (concussion); running back/returner Tyler Ervin (wrist/ribs); and wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown (knee). … Wide receiver Davante Adams (ankle), as he had last week, practiced on Friday after resting on Thursday and was removed from the report. … Bears coach Matt Nagy, meanwhile, announced that Mitchell Trubisky will start at quarterback with Nick Foles (hip) listed as doubtful. Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks (hamstring) is questionable.
Photos: Packers' 2020 season so far in pictures