On Saturday the Green Bay Packers will play host to the San Francisco 49ers in the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs. Each team will be looking to exploit a weakness of their opponent. For the Packers, there might be a slight opportunity to take advantage of since 49ers starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will enter the game with two known injuries. Garoppolo is currently dealing with injuries to his thumb and shoulder. Those injuries, along with Garoppolo not being very mobile, make him a target. That means fans should expect defensive coordinator Joe Barry to dial up a lot of pressure from the Green Bay Packers pass rush.
Green Bay Packers Pass Rush Will Be Leaned on Heavily Saturday Night
The Green Bay Packers pass rush will have a formidable task against the 49ers. While the very immobile Garoppolo enters the game dealing with injuries, he does have the luxury of an offensive line that does well in pass protection.
The 49ers finished the season giving up just 33 sacks. They finished tied for seventh in the league (with the Packers) for the fewest sacks allowed. But even though the 49ers offensive line is formidable, the Green Bay Packers pass rush has the talent to be up for the challenge. But to come out on top, the defensive players will need to be put in winning situations. That responsibility falls on Joe Barry, defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery, and outside linebackers coach Mike Smith.
Outside Linebackers Will Be the Focus of the Pass Rush
Barry runs a very similar style of defense as that of former Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio. That style relies on creating pressure from the outside linebacker position. For the Packers pass rush, they have two standouts at outside linebacker who are able to do that.
Veteran Preston Smith had a bounce-back season. In 2020 Smith only registered four sacks, but in 2021, he finished second on the Packers in sacks with nine. Unlike former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, Barry put Smith in better situations, and due to better schemes, and Smith entering the 2021 season lighter and leaner he produced at a higher level. After the 2020 season, many expected that Smith would be released, but instead, he became a core part of the Green Bay Packers pass rush.
The leader in sacks this season for the Packers was Rashan Gary after he finished the season with nine and a half sacks. In only his third season playing outside linebacker, Gary had a breakout season. His speed and power were on full display this season. Those two attributes made life difficult on opposing tackles.
On Saturday against the 49ers, expect to see a lot of Smith at one of the outside linebacker spots. Under Barry, Smith was not asked to drop back into coverage as much as he did the prior season. That allowed him to focus on rushing the passer, as did Gary. But against the 49ers, Barry might allow Gary to line up inside in certain situations. That is because of the return of another standout outside linebacker.
The Return of One of the Smiths
In the regular season, outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith played in just one game. Against the New Orleans Saints in the season opener, Smith registered one solo tackle. After the game, Smith went on injured reserve and underwent surgery for a back injury.
It appeared that Smith’s season, and possibly his Packers career, was over. However, Smith had other ideas. After being out almost four months, Smith returned to practice over a week ago. Even though it was just practice, Smith returning at all seemed like a miracle. Now, there is a chance that Smith will be lining up for the Packers on Saturday night against the 49ers.
While Smith might see some time on Saturday, there will be low expectations and he probably will see a limited snap count. After missing four months of action, Smith will be rusty and will need time to get his footing back. But even with that, Barry might utilize Smith in certain passing situations.
At times Barry might utilize Gary on the inside and have Smith line up on the outside. Smith has played inside in the past, but coming back from a back injury, Smith would be better off on the edge. Gary has the physical skills to line up inside and did so while at the University of Michigan. Gary gives the Packers pass rush, from the interior, another option.
Getting a Push From the Inside
The Green Bay Packers pass rush will need to come from the interior as well as the outside. The two Packers that will be asked to provide an interior pass rush will be Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry.
Clark is the leader of the Packers interior pass rush. This season, Clark registered four sacks, and in his sixth season, he has shown that he can line up at nose as well as a defensive tackle. Moving Clark around on the line allows him to find a favorable matchup. If Clark can penetrate the middle, it will make life difficult for Garoppolo.
Leading up to the 2021 season it appeared that Lowry’s days were numbered as a Packer. However, general manager Brian Gutekunst made the decision to bring Lowry back and the decision has paid off for the Packers pass rush. Lowry posted five sacks this season and he has made life difficult on opposing linemen. His five sacks are a career-high. His play this season has finally matched the contract he signed before the 2019 season.
Third Interior Pass Rush Spot
For the other interior spot, using Gary there might be the Packers best option. For most of the season, Tyler Lancaster has been in that role, but he has failed to contribute, both against the pass and the run. But even with failing to contribute in those areas, the Packers might be forced to utilize him in running situations and use Gary in obvious passing situations.
Defensive lineman Kingsley Keke was expected to be the third interior pass-rushing option going into this season. And Keke did register two and a half sacks early this season but missed most of the second half of the season due to COVID, a concussion, and personal issues. Shockingly, the Packers released him this week, which limits the options at the third interior spot. Gary might be the answer though.
If the Packers are going to beat the 49ers and make it back to the NFC Championship, Aaron Rodgers and the rest of the Packers offense will have to show up. But Packers defense must carry their own weight and their pass rush will need to have a big game.
The return of Za’Darius Smith, even on a most likely limited basis, gives the Packers more options. While some Packers fans have been confident this week, this matchup will be a tough one for head coach Matt LaFleur and the rest of the Packers. But if the defense can pressure Garoppolo and make life difficult for him, it will put the Packers offense in better situations. If that happens, the Packers will be just one game away from the Super Bowl.