When the Green Bay Packers take the field for the divisional round of the playoffs the team should have two more All-Pros on the field.
A day after left tackle David Bakhtiari returned to action for the first time in more than a year, news broke Monday that outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith had been cleared medically and will be designated to return from injured reserve. If things go as planned, Smith will be available for the playoffs.
From @GMFB: #Packers star pass-rusher Za’Darius Smith, out since late September because of back surgery, was officially cleared this past week & is slated to be designated for return this week, sources say. If all goes well, he’ll be on the field when Green Bay’s playoffs begin. pic.twitter.com/t2iRWiAcvw
Smith hasn’t played since Week 1 against New Orleans. He underwent back surgery just days later and has been on injured reserve since then. In his first two seasons with the Packers, Smith led the team with 26 total sacks.
“I want to kind of temper the expectations,” coach Matt LaFleur told reporters Monday afternoon. “Here’s a guy that hasn’t practiced since before the New Orleans game. We’ll get him back out there (Wednesday) and see how he looks, see what type of shape he’s in. If he progresses and checks all the boxes, then he’ll be back out on the field.”
Green Bay is also expecting to get cornerback Jaire Alexander back on the field. He hasn’t played since Week 4 due to a shoulder injury but has practiced on a regular basis for the last month. It’s possible he would have suited up against Detroit on Sunday but tested positive for COVID-19 and practiced just once last week.
Integrating him back into a group that has seen really good play from cornerbacks Rasul Douglas and Eric Stokes will be a challenge, especially since all three thrive playing outside and not in the slot. Alexander has the most experience there, seeing 174 snaps inside during his rookie season, but that total dropped to 33 in 2020.
“There are a lot of conversations that are taking place right now because we have a pretty good problem in that we’ve got some other pretty good players, especially at the corner position,” LaFleur said. “And how do you get all these guys out on the grass at the same time and where are you placing them. Those are some of the things that we’re kind of working through as a staff right now. How to get all these guys out on the field and then put them in a position to be successful.”
Offensive line getting healthy
Green Bay saw the return of Bakhtiari (torn ACL) and center Josh Myers (knee) against the Lions, with each playing most of the first half. Bakhtiari got 27 reps before taking himself out of the game, while Myers ended up with 32.
“I thought David did an outstanding job. He looked great, he moved well. Certainly, there’s no substitute for football shape and that takes time. But I thought he handled himself very well,” LaFleur said. “I think you’re looking at two just completely different circumstances in terms of the number of plays David has played throughout the course of his career versus the number Josh has. I would say David probably looked a little further along than than Josh, but we’re confident that Josh will get there. I think he’s another guy that just has to get back into football shape.”
Both will almost surely being in the starting lineup when the playoffs open. The same could be true for right tackle Billy Turner. He missed the final four games of the regular season with a knee injury, but LaFleur expects him back on the practice field at some point this week.
Hackett getting attention
The Packers offense has been among the best in the NFL the last two seasons and many people within the organization credit offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett with being a big part of that. Now those outside the facility are taking notice, too, as Hackett will interview for two head coaching positions — Denver and Jacksonville — this week.
“I would anticipate more interest in Nathaniel if teams are doing their homework,” LaFleur said. “I think he’s definitely deserving of at least being in the conversation with everybody and getting an opportunity to present what he’s all about to all these teams. I know if I was leading the search, he would be high on my list.”
Green Bay will have to wait until after Wild Card weekend to find out its first playoff opponent. There are four possibilities — Los Angeles, Arizona, San Francisco or Philadelphia. The Packers didn’t face the Eagles this year but went 3-0 against the other teams.