The Green Bay Packers will be facing a familiar face on Sunday in Minnesota and the matchup surrounding that player may go a long way towards determining the outcome of the game. Edge rusher Za’Darius Smith is now a member of the Minnesota Vikings and he’s eager to face his former team.
Smith made a big impact with the Packers after signing with the team as an unrestricted free agent in 2019. He and fellow “Smith Brother” Preston joined the team and helped revamp the Packers pass rush.
Za’Darius was the more dynamic of the duo and he finished his first season in green and gold with a career-high 13.5 sacks which led the team. Z earned Pro Bowl honors for the first time in his career and his work ethic and infectious enthusiasm for the game helped transform the attitude of not just the Packers defense but the entire team.
His most dominant game that season came in the Packers 23-10 win over the Vikings in Minnesota in Week 16. The stakes were large as a win would clinch the NFC North title for the Packers. A nationally television audience watched as Za’Darius helped take down the Vikings with a memorable performance. Z finished the game with seven total tackles including five tackles for loss. He was credited with 3.5 sacks and five quarterback hits in the game. The Green Bay defense held the Vikings to just seven first downs in the game and 139 total yards.
Smith followed with another strong season for the Packers in 2020 where he had 12.5 sacks and again made the Pro Bowl. He was not as dominant as he was the previous season but was still playing at a high level and was one of the best players on defense.
Last season was a tough one for Za’Darius. He suffered back pains and missed most of training camp. He tried to play in Week 1 against the Saints and was officially in on one tackle but was only able to play 18 snaps in the game. The Packers placed him on the IR after the game. He missed the rest of the regular season because of the back injury but did return for the Packers playoff game against the 49ers.
In typical Za’Darius fashion, Z set the tone for the defense even after missing 16 games. He sacked 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo for a nine-yard loss on the first defensive series of the game for the Packers and forced a San Francisco punt. The Packers defense would not allow a touchdown all game. Smith was able to play in 35 percent of the team’s defensive snaps.
But the relationship between Za’Darius and the Packers took a hit over the way the team managed the back injury and the Packers offseason cap situation. GM Brian Gutekunst saw the lower back injury as potential problem and decided to retain Preston Smith and let Za’Darius be a cap casualty. Z became an unrestricted free agent after being let go by the Packers.
Initially, there were reports Za’Darius would re-sign with the Baltimore Ravens, the team he played with before he signed with the Packers, but that deal fell through and instead, Za’Darius signed with the Packers NFC North-rivals, the Minnesota Vikings. The deal was worth $42 million over three years with a $5 million signing bonus.
Smith is obviously eager to face the Packers and to prove to them that they made a mistake in letting him go. “They did [release me] and I came to the other side,” Smith told reporters on Monday. “At the end of the day, it’s a game we all get to play and do something that we love. I just can’t wait to go against my old team.”
Za’Darius will present a challenge for the Green Bay offense. The Packers are expecting the Vikings coaching staff to line up Smith in different places along the line to try to create matchup advantages much the way they did when Z was with the Packers. The Green Bay offensive line which may be getting back starting tackles David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins, who both spent most of training camp on the PUP list, will have to be aware of where Za’Darius is on the field. Teaming Smith with Danielle Hunter gives Minnesota two outstanding pass rushing weapons.
The Packers are aware of the challenge they face when they go up against their former teammate. “I expect him to be fired up,” defensive lineman Kenny Clark admitted. “He’ll be excited to play us. Not only is it a division game but these teams know each other, too. He’s not a big talker but he’s going to play hard and he’s going to have a lot of fun. He’ll get after it and he’ll have some fun doing it.”
If the Packers can keep Smith and Hunter away from Rodgers, they have a good chance to exploiting a vulnerable Vikings secondary. It will be a key matchup on Sunday and one with an extra dimension thanks to Za’Darius Smith.
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