The Green Bay Packers, fresh with a rookie head coach, sophomore general manager, and many free agents who had never played together, are your 2019 NFC North Champions.
But as the team shirts say, “the North is not enough.” The Packers have a real shot at a first-round bye with a win over the Staffordless Detroit Lions and can take the #1 seed in the NFC with a GB win and a Seattle win.
One of the most impactful reasons the Packers have gotten this far is perhaps the addition of outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith.
It’s no secret the Packers needed edge help after last season, where age, injuries, and lack of overall talent made the position a dire need. Brian Gutekunst responded by signing the Smith Bros, Preston from Washington and Za’Darius from Baltimore, as well as drafting Rashan Gary out of Michigan. All three have played roles on Mike Pettine’s defense, but Za’Darius, in particular, has changed this team.
Za’Darius, along with longest-tenured Packer leaders Aaron Rodgers and Mason Crosby, was voted a permanent team captain and took to the role. Team dinners, late-night study sessions, mentoring younger players, and his beautiful friendship with Preston are just a few of the ways Smith created a new identity for a once-maligned defense. Green Bay’s defense is aggressive, good at getting to the quarterback, great in the red zone, and perhaps most importantly, they have fun while doing it.
Group defensive celebrations, where the entire unit celebrates an individual play, are commonplace. Sack celebrations are practiced throughout the week. This is a unit proud of its accomplishments, and Za’Darius Smith’s leadership is key.
Smith famously flashed a shirt with the words “We (heart) Eileen,” after a sack in Week 12. Eileen Broker, mother of a Packers’ employee, suffers from a rare form of bone marrow cancer, according to wbay.com. When Smith found out, he and Eileen’s son, Ben, worked together to make the shirt and plan the celebration. Z has only been with the team for a short time, but he’s made Green Bay, and the people there, his home.
Intangibles are great, but how are the numbers? According to Pro Football Reference, Smith has one forced fumble, 13.5 sacks, and 35 quarterback hits.
Smith was egregiously snubbed by the Pro Bowl but has a strong case for Defensive Player of the Year and All-Pro, two much more meaningful awards. Perhaps that snub is what led to his dominant performance against Minnesota on MNF. Smith was a wrecking ball against the Vikings, racking up 3.5 sacks and 5 QB hits. That do anything for you, Pro Bowl voters?
Za’Darius is in excellent company as far as his stats go. According to PackersWire’s Zach Kruse, the only other players to have at least 13 sacks, 35 QB hits, and 17 tackles for loss in a season are J.J. Watt and Aaron Donald. Ever heard of them?
Even if the national audience doesn’t recognize how good Za’Darius Smith has been this season, Packers’ fans have a front-row seat to how impactful Smith has been to this team. His leadership skills and play on the field have transformed this defense into one feared by opposing quarterbacks, and having him on this team is an absolute delight.
Ron Wolf brought in Reggie White. Ted Thompson signed Charles Woodson. Both players helped take talented Packer teams and elevate them to the Super Bowl. It’s early in his tenure, and Z only has one year of Green and Gold, but Smith could be Gutekunst’s master signing. Let’s hope the pattern continues and this team goes all the way.Matt Hendershott is a Packers fan and Miller High Life enthusiast from Northwest Ohio. He has a Master of Arts in Media and Communication from Bowling Green State University. You can follow him on Twitter @MattHendershott.