Matt LaFleur’s Massive Jaire Alexander and Za’Darius Smith Injury Update Increases Green Bay Packers’ Odds of Breaking Playoff Losing Streak to San Francisco 49ers

The Green Bay Packers are set to put a theory about the NFL playoffs to the test. It’s not always the best team, but the team that can remain the healthiest that goes on to win the Super Bowl. That’s the theory, at least.

The NFL playoffs are a war of attrition, and that’s something the Packers know much about after a 2021 season that saw them lose multiple key players.

What happens when the best team also happens to be the healthiest?

The No. 1 seed Packers can answer that question at Lambeau Field this Saturday as they take on the San Francisco 49ers.

The Green Bay Packers had a tremendous season despite missing several key players

Jaire Alexander, Green Bay Packers
Jaire Alexander #23 of the Green Bay Packers reacts to a play against the San Francisco 49ers during the NFC Championship game | Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

In a testament to both the front office and the coaching staff, the Packers earned the top seed in the NFC playoffs thanks to a 13-4 regular season. Sure, an argument can be made that any team featuring Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams better be one of the top teams in the league, but football is a team sport, and it takes a lot more than two superstars to make the playoffs. If that were the case, Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson would have been playoff mainstays in all of their years in Detroit.

It takes all 11 players on the field executing at the same time to successfully run a play, and that’s the beauty of the game. Football is not just a team sport; it’s the ultimate team sport. You can do your job at an elite level, but if the person next to you fails, chances are you will as well.

That’s what made this season so impressive for Green Bay.

To be the top seed in the NFC is one thing. To do that without four of seven Pro Bowl players who took the Packers to the NFC title game two seasons in a row is something else altogether.

It’s wholly impressive what the Packers were able to do without Jaire Alexander, Za’Darius Smith, David Bakhtiari, and Elgton Jenkins for most — if not all — of the season.

General manager Brian Gutekunst built a deep squad, and LaFleur and his staff coached it up.

The Packers are now set to benefit from their ability to keep winning in the face of adversity. According to LaFleur, help may be on the way.

A major injury update on Jaire Alexander and Za’Darius Smith

Getting Bakhtiari back in time for the playoffs has always been a priority for the Packers, which is why they trotted him out for a few series in an otherwise meaningless game against the Detroit Lions in Week 18. He hadn’t played against an actual NFL opponent in over a year as he recovered from an ACL injury he suffered late last season. Getting his legs back under him was a huge steppingstone, and adding a two-time All-Pro left tackle back into the lineup won’t go unnoticed.

The status of both Alexander and Smith was much murkier for Green Bay heading into the playoffs.

Alexander had been out with a shoulder injury he suffered in Week 4. The Packers activated him off injured reserve near the end of the season, but he never got back onto the field. He had been seen practicing with the team. Still, the Packers are generally conservative about bringing back injured players, and that was evident as they slow-played Alexander back into practice.

On the Smith front, there have been rumors of him rejoining the team for weeks now, but the Packers only just activated him off injured reserve. He’s been gone from the lineup since Week 1, when he aggravated a back injury that ultimately required surgery.

Getting back both Alexander and Smith in time for the game against San Francisco would be huge for Green Bay’s defense, and according to LaFleur, that is a possibility.

LaFleur told the media he’s “hopeful” both players will be able to play Saturday, though he did caution that they likely wouldn’t get a huge number of snaps if they do play.

Still, this is a massive update for Green Bay, and it could end up spelling doom for the 49ers.

How Alexander and Smith can help the Packers beat the 49ers

Za'Darius Smith, Green Bay Packers
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo #10 of the San Francisco 49ers is chased by outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith #55 of the Green Bay Packers | Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

It’s much easier to reintegrate a situational pass-rusher than a starting corner, so if you had to put money on either Alexander or Smith having the more significant impact against San Francisco, Smith is the safe bet.

It’s easy to forget because he’s been gone all season, but Smith was one of the best pass-rushers in the league over the past two seasons. He notched 26 sacks over his first two seasons in Green Bay and proved valuable for then-defensive coordinator Mike Pettine in many ways. He was used as both an edge-rusher and a blitzing “Mike” linebacker in Pettine’s scheme. He sometimes even lined up as a nose tackle to get a rush from the inside.

It seemed as if the Packers were hoping to continue Smith’s jack-of-all-trades role under new defensive coordinator Joe Barry, and if he’s able to play against San Francisco, that’s likely how he’ll be used.

It’s not hard to imagine Barry calling Smtih’s number on situational third downs when the 49ers have to throw the ball. The Packers will already be trotting out two standout pass-rushers in Preston Smith (nine sacks) and Rashan Gary (9.5 sacks). Being able to mix in Za’Darius Smith from multiple locations could be precisely what the Packers need to either nullify an ailing Jimmy Garoppolo or slow down athletic backup quarterback Trey Lance.

Having Za’Darius Smith as a pass-rushing option also allows Preston Smith and Gary to focus on containing the edge against the run, and that will be vital for the Packers as they look to slow down a normally dynamic San Francisco running game.

The plan for Alexander will be a bit more complicated because “situational cornerbacks” aren’t a thing like pass-rushers are. With that said, bringing Alexader off the bench in obvious passing situations would be a massive boost to an already solid Green Bay secondary.

Rookie Eric Stokes has filled in admirably in Alexander’s absence, and Rasul Douglas, who the Packers picked off the Arizona Cardinals’ practice squad midway through the season, has become a star with five interceptions (including two pick-sixes) in 12 games. Both will be capable starters against San Francisco, but having a true shutdown corner like Alexander waiting in the wings is a huge advantage for Green Bay.

The Packers could use him as a nickel back in order to get him on the field with Stokes and Douglas.

One also has to wonder if Barry may draw up a plan to use Alexander as a shadow to Deebo Samuel. The 49ers use Samuel both as a route-runner and a running back, and it would be advantageous for Green Bay to have a talented player like Alexander to blanket and key in on San Francisco’s most dynamic weapon.

The Packers would be wise to get Alexander on the field in big moments. Even at 90%, he’s still better than most cornerbacks at full strength.

Either way, just having Alexander and Za’Darius Smith back as tools in the chest should provide the Packers with enough of a punch to finally take it to the 49ers in the playoffs. Green Bay is 0-3 in the Rodgers era when going up against San Francisco in the postseason.

There’s also the mental aspect of the game. Even just having two of their stars back in pads and on the sideline could be the energy boost the Packers need to break this cold streak.

“It’s a boost to people around just to see guys back, because when great players go down, it’s a bummer to everybody just on the level when you actually know those guys as your boys,” safety Adrian Amos said, according to ESPN. “But just having them out there, it’s great to see, and hopefully, they can help us make a run here.”

Stats courtesy of ESPN and Pro Football Reference. 

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