D.J. Smith made a strong enough impression on Head Coach Mike McCarthy in one game as a rookie that he’s a candidate to wear the helmet communicator as the defensive signal-caller on Sunday.
Cornerback Charles Woodson and safety Morgan Burnett have practiced with the helmet speaker this week, as well, and the coaching staff still had to make a final decision but, on Friday, McCarthy sounded as though he would have no qualms giving the Smith the duty.
“He’s prepared,” McCarthy said. “He played very well in Detroit. I think he has very good communication skills and I think it will be seamless.”
Smith and Robert Francois have just one career NFL start between them, but none of their defensive mates expect any slide in the unit’s play against the Giants. They’ll be replacing Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk in the starting lineup. After not practicing all week, the two veterans were ruled out for the game with calf injuries.
That leaves the two young players to pick up where they left off on Thanksgiving, when they both got their first meaningful action on defense this season in helping the Packers remain unbeaten.
“Everyone understands what the standard is around here,” defensive lineman B.J. Raji said. “We plan on winning a lot of games here, and if you want to be a part of this, you have to hold up your end of the bargain.”
Smith and Francois both did that last week.
A sixth-round pick from Appalachian State, Smith didn’t have the normal spring work to learn the defense due to the lockout, but he opened some eyes with how readily he picked things up.
Bishop noted that Smith seemed to grasp Dom Capers’ complex defense quickly. Position coach and Assistant Head Coach Winston Moss said learning the defense remains an ongoing process, but he’s plenty comfortable with where Smith is in that process.
“He came off immediately as being very smart, mature, a lot of good football instincts,” Moss said. “He had a very good foundation. He was impressive from the start. There were never any red flags with him.”
Smith made an immediate impact against the Lions, shedding a block by tight end Brandon Pettigrew to burst through the line and stone running back Kevin Smith for no gain on his very first snap. After reviewing the film, the coaches credited him with seven tackles (four solo), an impressive prelude to what will now be his first pro start, which the 5-11 Smith is calling an opportunity to put both his school and all “undersized” linebackers on the map.
“I always remind those guys, especially the new guys that come in, when you’re put in that type of situation, an offensive coordinator is going to take a look at that and say, ‘You know what, he’s going to have that look on his face. Let’s try and take advantage of the young guy,’” Moss said. “Right from the start he had to be ready, and he answered.”
So did Francois, a second-year pro who coincidentally got his first NFL start last year against the Giants. His leaping interception in the third quarter at Detroit on a pass intended for Pettigrew was a pivotal play in the game. The Lions were down 14-0 and had reached Green Bay territory with a chance to cut into the lead. Instead, the Packers got the turnover and converted it into a 65-yard touchdown pass to James Jones on the very next play.
Even more so than Smith, who has been a regular on special teams, Francois truly came in cold off the bench. He had been a gameday inactive for the previous five games, but like a “great pro,” according to Moss, he always stayed ready.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” Francois said of the long inactive streak. “Anybody would say that. You put a lot of work in and you want to be able to go out there and use the tools you’ve been working on. It’s part of the business, though.
“This is what you work for.”
On the other side of the ball, if the Packers needed any additional incentive to protect quarterback Aaron Rodgers, they got it from Giants Defensive Coordinator Perry Fewell.
In what’s been described as a “fiery” session with reporters on Thursday, Fewell emphasized that the Giants’ pass-rush on Sunday will not resemble the anemic one that couldn’t get to Saints quarterback Drew Brees this past Monday.
“We have to be very disciplined in our rush lanes,” Fewell said. “But more so than disciplined, we’ve got to get after his a--. If we do that and he scrambles, then that is the price he is going to have to pay because we are going to hit him. We are going to hit him.”
When asked about the comments on Friday, McCarthy brushed them off as a motivational ploy. Exactly whom they will motivate remains to be determined.
“He’s obviously trying to get something done with his football team,” McCarthy said. “We’ll focus on our team and we’ll see what happens on Sunday.” Additional coverage - Dec. 2