Za’Darius looked at Preston and said, “I’ll answer.”
Preston nodded and said, “Yeah, you answer.”
They’ve taken to handling their media responsibilities as a tandem, which is the same approach they’ve taken to pestering quarterbacks and taking down running backs.
No, they’re not brothers; they’re not even related. But from the moment they arrived in Green Bay as two of general manager Brian Gutekunst’s high-priced, free-agent signings in March, they’ve acted like they are.
While the Packers didn’t do more than dabble in free agency before Gutekunst took over, perhaps never before in Green Bay have two veterans arrived with this kind of …
“Chemistry?” Za’Darius said, finishing a question.
“It’s just knowing one another,” he continued. “I feel like this goes for the whole defense, if we get together more off the field, we’ll just learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Just communication and being around each other helps us on the field.”
Through two games, the Smiths have combined for 2.5 sacks, 16 tackles, eight quarterback hits and an interception. Za’Darius’ line reads like this: 1.0 sacks, 9 tackles (tied for second on the team), 4 QB hits. Preston’s is: 1.5 sacks (tied for the team lead), 7 tackles, 4 quarterback hits, 1 interception.
Last year’s team leader in quarterback hits, Clay Matthews, totaled just nine. The Smiths are both nearly halfway there after two games.
So far, it’s been money — and a lot of it — well spent.
The day Za’Darius signed his four-year, $66 million deal (including a $20 million signing bonus) and Preston signed his four-year, $52 million deal (including a $16 million signing bonus) was like a reunion. They first met when Za’Darius was at East Mississippi Community College and Preston was at Mississippi State, and Za’Darius took a recruiting visit to Starkville.
Though Za’Darius chose another SEC school, Kentucky, they connected again at the NFL scouting combine, where players are not only grouped by position, but alphabetically within their groups.
“I was right behind him,” Za’Darius said. “In those situations, we had to talk. It was pretty cool because for the past four years in the league, I was staying in touch because I was in Baltimore and he was in Washington.”
But they didn’t truly bond until they arrived in Green Bay. In the Baltimore-Washington area, they were 90 minutes apart — “without traffic,” Preston said.
“Now we’re like five minutes away,” he said. “Nothing is too far in Green Bay.”
While they were upstairs at Lambeau Field signing their contracts, their kids — Za’Darius’ 5-year-old son and Preston’s 5-year-old daughter — played together.
“They’re both 5, but I told him to keep his son away from my daughter,” Preston said in one of their rare separate interviews. “Nah, I’m kidding. They were both playing in the weight room together kicking a ball around and chasing each other around.”
Though neither one of their children lives in Green Bay full time, they have regular play dates when they’re in town.
“When she came up here for the summer, they got together,” Za’Darius said. “P was telling me, ‘Your son better not try my girl.’ But it’s all good. We’re all family at the end of the day.”
A skeptic might say this is all an act or at least a convenient connection because of their names and their positions.
Aaron Rodgers doesn’t think so.
“These guys are great team guys,” Rodgers said. “And as opposed to some years in the past where we didn’t have that stand-up, charismatic leadership on that side of the ball, these guys want it. And they both will get up and say things. Their word carries a lot of weight because of the way they practice and the way they play. And they’re a lot of fun. I mean, I told you guys after the game in Chicago last week how much fun that was in the locker room. Same thing coming in now after this one [against the Vikings].
“Those two, I can tell you, really do enjoy each other and hang out off the field. But it’s a lot closer-knit group than we had in years past. And I give Brian and his staff and everybody buying into Matt [LaFleur’s] system the credit for that.”