If NFL teams want to win the Super Bowl, they need to protect the quarterback on offense and pressure opposing quarterbacks on defense. If that’s the case, the Green Bay Packers are getting key reinforcements to help them in both of these key aspects of the game just as the playoffs are set to begin.
The Packers got more good news on Thursday. Not only has two-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith resumed practicing with the team, but edge rusher Whitney Mercilus also returned to practice and has been designated to return from the injured reserve. The Packers now have three weeks to either activate him to the roster or have him sit out the rest of the playoffs.
Mercilus was signed by GM Brian Gutekunst midseason and played four games for the Packers after being released by the Houston Texans earlier this season. He registered one sack, two quarterback pressures and two quarterback hits while making five total tackles for the Packers in four games. Then he suffered a torn biceps injury and was presumed lost for the season. It has been a pleasant surprise to see him back at practice.
If both Za’Darius Smith and Mercilus are healthy enough to return for the playoffs, the Packers would have four talented edge rushers available with Za’Darius and Mercilus able to play behind Preston Smith and Rashan Gary who have been doing a strong job as starters for the Packers all season.
Gary led the Packers with 9.5 sacks and 28 quarterback hits. Preston Smith was close behind with nine sacks and 17 quarterback hits. In 2020, Za’Darius Smith recorded 12.5 sacks after having 13.5 the previous season. He made the Pro Bowl both seasons after signing with the Packers as a free agent.
We are still unsure how much to expect from Za’Darius if he returns to the lineup. It is very likely he will play only on obvious passing downs and probably take 15-20 snaps in his first game back. But it does provide the Packers with more depth and more options when it comes to rushing the passer. That includes possibly lining Za’Darius up on the inside and having him rush the passer from that position. He and Kenny Clark could give the Packers a pair of dangerous interior rushers while Preston Smith and Gary attack from the edge.
If Mercilus can return, he would provide the Packers with more than just depth as a pass rusher. The former University of Illinois star would also give the Packers run defense a boost when he is on the field. Mercilus is better at staying in his lane and not allowing runners and receivers to break contain. This would help a problem area the Packers defense has had in recent weeks.
The Packers are also getting healthy along the offensive line. Both left tackle David Bakhtiari and center Josh Myers returned to the lineup for the season finale against the Lions. The biggest benefit of that was that these two starters would not be still adjusting to the speed of the game when the playoffs get under way. Both players looked solid out there and the two of them were able to get some of the rust and psychological issues of returning from injury out of the way.
The Packers could also be getting right tackle Billy Turner back in the lineup as well. Turner was a constant and steady presence on the right side of the offensive line for the first 13 games of the season before suffering an injury that caused him to miss the rest of the regular season.
If the Packers get Turner back, they can field an offensive line that features four of their top five original starters with only Elgton Jenkins being unavailable. Jenkins is out for the rest of the season.
The most likely lineup would be Bakhtiari at left tackle, Jon Runyan, Jr. at left guard, Myers at center, Lucas Patrick at right guard and Turner at right tackle.
This would make the offensive line stronger, more experienced and better at both protecting the quarterback and opening holes for the run game then they have been in recent weeks. When facing teams like the Bucs, Rams or Cowboys who all have strong pass rushers, getting these starters back can have a major impact on the outcome of the game.
Just look at what happened a year ago in the NFC Championship Game. The Bucs were able to pressure Aaron Rodgers in part because Bakhtiari was injured and the offensive line had to move Turner to left tackle while Rick Wagner played right tackle. Neither of them had a strong game and the Packers fell just short of reaching the Super Bowl.
There is no question that the Packers are getting healthy at the right time. But even with the return of some or all these players for the playoffs, they still need to perform up to their potential to reach and win the Super Bowl. That challenge lies ahead for the Packers.
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