SANTA CLARA — Nick Bosa and Dee Ford aren’t the only transformative edge players in Sunday’s NFC Championship game.
The same applies to Za’Darius and Preston Smith, two outside linebackers for the Green Bay Packers who signed hefty free agent contracts in the off-season and had a big impact not only rushing the passer but in the locker room.
Known in Green Bay as “The Smith Brothers,” they’re not related but have been joined at the hip since their arrival and even conduct their post-game and in-week press conferences together.
In large part because of their edge play, the Packers and 49ers will become only the third conference title game matchup in the Super Bowl era between teams that had losing records the season before. Both had 13-3 regular seasons after the Packers were 6-9-1 and the 49ers 4-12 in 2018.
The Smiths combined for 25 1/2 sacks, more than any duo in the NFL. Both had career-best seasons, with Z’Darius getting 13 1/2 sacks and Preston 12 while playing in a 3-4 defensive alignment.
Much in the manner that 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has confused defenses by occasionally putting Ford over a guard, Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine hasn’t been shy about keeping the Smiths on the move.
Still, the job of keeping Jimmy Garoppolo clean will rest largely on left tackle Joe Staley and right tackle Mike McGlinchey in terms of keeping the Smiths at bay. Their success or failure Sunday at Levi’s Stadium, as well as that of Packers tackles against Bosa and Ford will go a long way toward determining the NFC representative for Super Bowl LIV in Miami.
“Joe and I are excited as edge players on offense to have the opportunity and I’m sure they are too,” McGlinchey said. “Having them changes an entire defense. It’s all about situational football. If you’re winning on third down as much as we have, and as much as they have all year, that’s the reason you win games.”
Za’Darius Smith, who has taken to wearing a towel with the word “snubbed” because of his omission from the Pro Bowl, knows he and his brother from another mother have a big responsibility.
“It starts up front,” Za’Darius told reporters in Green Bay. “We’re the guys who basically put a lot of pressure on the quarterback and it works and in hand. If the coverage on the back end is locking those guys down we’ll be able to execute and get home up front. We feel that’s the No. 1 thing.”
Said Preston: We have to apply pressure and not let him get comfortable throws off and get in a rhythm and flow of making big plays for his team.”
The Packers were known as primarily a draft and develop team under previous general manager Ted Thompson, frustrating the fan base with quiet free agency periods. That changed in a big way in the second year of Brian Gutekunst, Thompson’s successor.
The Packers struck quickly to sign Za’Darius (6-foot-4, 272 pounds) to a four-year contract away from the Baltimore Ravens worth a maximum of $66 million, and Preston (6-5, 265) to a four-year deal worth $52 million after five years in Washington.
Considering neither man had ever had double digit sacks, it was a huge expenditure and a roll of the dice.
“Any time you add two good pass rushers it makes the defense a lot better,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Bringing in those two new guys made it that much tougher and they’ve continued to get better.”
The Smiths were friends before reaching the Packers. When Za’Darius was at East Mississippi Community College before transferring to Kentucky, a big outing was a trip to Starkville and Mississippi State, where Preston was playing.
The two met there, struck up a friendship, then wound up together at the NFL scouting combine because they had the same last name and went to drills and meetings together.
When both became free agents during the past offseason, Za’Darius said he told Preston, “Man, it would be crazy if we ended on the same team.”
After free agency began, Za’Darius received a call from his agent who informed him, “You’re going to be playing with Preston Smith.”
The two became instant leaders, and called a team meeting after the Packers were drubbed 37-8 by the 49ers on Nov. 24.
“We wanted to make sure we didn’t hang our heads,” Preston Smith said. “We learned from the mistakes we made in that game and finished out the season strong . . . we envisioned this was what we were going to bring to the table. We talked about doing big things when they brought us in, and we’re not done yet. We’ll do better things in the future — the near future.”