The Packers came into their week 16 game against the Minnesota Vikings with a lot on the line and a lot to prove. With a win, the Packers would clinch the NFC North and move closer to their goal of obtaining a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the playoffs.
Shortly after kickoff, it seemed like the Packers would have to scrap and fight to meet those goals, but after the game, there was no doubt about how good this Packers team is. While the offense had a decent game, the defense was the unit that really shone throughout the game.
What set the defense apart was the solid performance they got out of star outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith. Smith has been over-performing all season for the Packers. The edge position really needed an upgrade this offseason and Brian Gutekunst was able to bring several key pieces to the puzzle with Za’Darius being one of the most important pieces to that puzzle.
Deion Sanders coined the phrase that, “big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games”. That is a perfect way to sum up Smith’s play on Monday night. In what has been the biggest game up to this point in the season, Smith made big plays all night to help put the Packers in position to win this game.
Shortly after the game started, Smith made his first major appearance of the night on this play. It’s always important to keep an eye on how defensive coordinator Mike Pettine uses Smith pre-snap. He has shown this year that he will play him all over the defensive front.
Here are just a few positions you will see him lined up in before the snap of the ball:
- Short side (closest towards the boundary)
- Wide side (to the field)
- 3 technique (shaded on the offensive guard)
- A gap (between the center and guard)
Keep that in mind as we break down the film of Smith’s game. Every position has it’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to note how Pettine uses Smith pre-snap and what he wants to see from him.
In the above clip, we see Smith line up to the short side of the formation in this dime 33 front. Dime relates to the defensive personnel with 33 being labeled as the front, where we see both interior defensive lineman lined up in a 3 technique.
Shortly after the snap, we see Smith take a short step outside and then quickly rip back towards the inside to make this tackle for loss. Most of the time I wouldn’t like to see this out of an edge player as it can leave the edge vulnerable, but quickness and speed are one of Smith’s greatest strengths. If you watch closely, you can also notice what he does with the outside hip as he “steps through” towards the back. Hip flexibility and speed will always be one of the hardest things for an offensive lineman to account for.
If a coach was ever using tape to teach at a clinic on how to play the run, this would be it. Along with speed and quickness, the sheer power that Smith uses is impressive when he plays the run.
Notice how Smith is lined up in the 3 technique position before the snap of the ball here. It’s a tall task for Vikings guard Josh Kline knowing that one of the NFL’s best pass rushers is lined up over him. By using Smith at the three-technique, it can sometimes get into the heads of an offensive guard.
There are three things I want you to notice about Smith on this play. They are:
- Arm extension
Arm extension is key in any rush. The goal of the rusher is to create as much separation as he can from the blocker, which sets up a block shed. Notice how Smith is fully extended with his arms, which puts Kline on skates.
Second is the angle that he takes. The three-technique gives Smith a perfect 45-degree angle to rush the quarterback or in this case, play the run. He wants to basically ear-hole the guard, get the shoulders turned and finish. The finish is everything. A player can set up a fantastic rush or play the run with technique, but if he doesn’t finish the play it doesn’t mean anything. Thankfully, that’s not the case here, as Smith is able to break into the offensive backfield and throw the runner down with force.
Mike Pettine has done a great job all year of “scheming” his rushers to get free. Using the loop stunt is just one of those schemes. At the snap, Kyler Fackrell does a nice job setting up Smith to rush through cleanly. He takes a nice, flat angle towards the outside, which draws the block of the guard and pushes him into the block of the tackle.
There’s no hesitation by Smith, as he cuts down the line of scrimmage smoothly and is able to come free in the A gap. When the edge is stunting in this case, there cannot be any sort of hesitation or slow movement. He has to get there and do so quickly. This is where it comes back to his speed. Za’Darius is just a step shy of a sack here but no need to worry, as he had plenty of those in this game.
I stated in my Vikings Scouting Report that the Packers would have to get to Cousins and do so often early on in this game to get him razzled and capitalize on his mistakes. I highly doubt that anyone at 1265 reads my scouting reports, but it seems like that was the recipe for success for this defense.
Here is one of the first sacks for Smith in this game. The Packers come out in an under front, which sets a shaded technique to the strength of the offense and a three-technique to the weakside. Smith does a lot of things well in this short clip. Notice after the snap that he gives a good head fake, throwing the tackle off slightly. Once he gives the fake, he is able to get a nice swat with his outside arm on the shoulder of the tackle and a rip with the inside arm. This is where all those training camp drills pay off.
The Packers come out again in the 33 front, only this time Smith is lined up to the inside of the front. Za’Darius is a fantastic rusher from the inside. This goes back to his days in Baltimore, as Dean Pees utilized him often in the interior. This look is great for third-down or obvious passing situations, as it allows him to go all out on the rush, allowing him to think less about forcing the play back inside as he would on the edge.
At the snap, Smith gives a violent two-handed club movement and a rip to finish off the rush. Hand placement is everything in the rush. If you want to win the battle, you have to have violent hands. This is something that Za’Darius is one of the best at.
Notice again the hip movement. Smith does a nice job turning the hips and finishing through on his rush. It’s the little things that separate him from the rest.
Earlier we broke down how a powerful rush is one of Smith’s best assets, and that is no different when it comes to getting after the quarterback. The bull-rush is one of his best rushing techniques solely because of his strength. On the bull rush, pad level and angles are of the utmost importance. The hands are typically placed with the inside hand on the breastplate of the tackle and the outside hand on the outside shoulder of the tackle. The hips should then be turned towards the quarterback and the rusher can do one of two things: set up the block shed or drive the blocker into the face of the quarterback to restrict vision. The funny thing is that he almost does both in this play. Brian O’Neill nearly hits Cousins at the end of this play and Smith is able to shuck the block and get in on the sack. This is technique stuff.
With player’s like Za’Darius Smith, I have no doubt that the Packers defense can shine in the playoffs. While there have been several playmakers for this unit, Smith is one of the biggest assets to this defense.
I think I speak for all Packer fans when I say that we are extremely happy to see him wearing green and gold this year.
Follow me on Twitter: @PTTF_Ben