Chicago’s Julius Peppers, Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh, Minnesota’s Jared Allen, the New York Giants’ Jason Pierre-Paul: It seems there’s rarely a break in the Packers’ 2012 schedule when it comes to dealing with disruptive and potentially dominant defensive linemen.
The difference in starting the season against San Francisco’s Justin Smith is there won’t be a break from him beginning at 3:25 p.m. Sunday until the fourth-quarter clock hits zero.
“We’re going to have our hands full with that guy,” left guard T.J. Lang said. “One thing about him is how relentless he is. He’s always flying to the ball and pushing guys around.
“He doesn’t take plays off. He plays 99 percent of the snaps, and he brings it play after play.”
Smith, a defensive end in the 49ers’ 3-4 alignment, is the do-it-all guy for one of the league’s best defenses. In earning his third Pro Bowl nod and his first All-Pro honor last year, Smith stoned the run, forced three fumbles, recorded 7 ½ sacks and even batted a couple of passes at the line, one on fourth down in the red zone in the waning moments to preserve a huge regular-season victory over the Giants.
Unprompted, quarterback Aaron Rodgers was just moments into his assessment of the 49ers defense when he mentioned Smith by name.
“Justin Smith is kind of the guy that makes it go at times,” Rodgers said. “He’s a blue-collar guy. He doesn’t always get the stats, but everybody knows how important he is to that team. He’s one of the very best players in the NFL, regardless of position.”
Smith doesn’t play just one position, either, so virtually every member of the Packers’ offensive line will have to be prepared for him.
Lang said he’ll line up over the tackle in the base defense, move inside over a guard in some sub groups, and he’ll walk around and rush the passer with twists and stunts from almost anywhere.
Smith’s motor and stamina have become the stuff of legend, particularly now that the 12-year veteran’s Navy Seal-like training methods were chronicled recently in Sports Illustrated. That’s how, despite playing every snap, he makes impact plays late in games, like the fourth-down Eli Manning pass deflection.
“Usually on a team, you can see guys wear down at the end of drives,” Lang said. “He doesn’t wear down. He’s just as strong play 60 as he is play one.”
Of course, nothing would take the starch out of Smith’s game more than another fast start offensively by Green Bay. The Packers began 2011 with touchdowns on their first three possessions, setting the stage for a record-smashing campaign.
That was against the Saints, though, who would go on to finish 24th in the league in yards allowed and 13th in points allowed. The 49ers finished fourth and second, respectively, in both categories last year.
So, 42 points may be a bit much to ask against Smith and Co., but as long as the offense scores enough to win, the start to 2012 could feel a lot like 2011 for the Packers. The Saints were a Super Bowl contender last year, as are the 49ers this year.
The game could function as a similar type of springboard. Dealing with Smith this early should only help with those other defensive linemen down the road, too.
“When you can beat a good team, a team that’s proven they can win, as well, it actually does help you build momentum and allows you an opportunity to stack success,” receiver Greg Jennings said. “That’s the opportunity we have in front of us.” Related links