As a highly coveted defensive lineman out of Missouri, Smith began his NFL career in Cincinnati, and it did not take him long to make an impact.
Despite missing Week 1 in 2001, Smith set a Bengals rookie record with 8.5 sacks in his first year. In his seven seasons in Cincinnati, Smith logged 43.5 career sacks.
However, this was a bulky 6'4", 285-pound lineman performing at the 4-3 defensive end position. By design, there would ideally be more speed and edge-rush ability from an end in that system.
In 2007, the Bengals designated their team's franchise tag to the defensive lineman. Smith signed and became an unrestricted free agent the following offseason. He only had two sacks in his last season with Cincinnati.
With the signing came the inherent risk of a defensive player switching systems. Smith would be lining up inside rather than being on the tackle's outside shoulder. The 3-4 defensive tackle is less of a finesse position and more geared toward horsepower—force versus force.
In Smith's first year in San Francisco he excelled, compiling a whopping 73 tackles that included seven sacks. Since his arrival, Smith has developed, establishing himself as a regular Pro Bowler representing the NFC the past three seasons (2009-2011).
In four seasons with the Niners, Smith has become a team leader and easily one of the NFL's most dominant players at any position. He has the capacity to take prototypical 6'5", 300-plus-pound tackles and throw them aside like rag dolls.
In Cincinnati, he was asked to go around these guys, but what the Bengals didn't know is that he's much better at going through them.
Smith had, perhaps, his most electrifying season in 2011. His dominance was recognized as the 49ers as a whole came together and made it to the NFC championship. He was a factor from the very beginning, becoming a closer at the defensive tackle position.
The following video is a solid compilation of Smith's 2011 performance, please view it before proceeding:
The video displays Smith's move: the bull rush.
It is an unblockable, power-based rush technique that Smith has mastered in the 49ers' 3-4 system. Time and time again, we see Smith doing nothing more than getting leverage, sticking his forearm into the chest of a lineman and driving him backwards against his will.
Smith is Herculean as he takes games over from the defensive line. He is so fast from A to B, that he can blow up a play before it has a chance to develop. He can dictate what an offense can and can't do on any given day, no matter the challenge or level of competition.
His disruptiveness is non-stop and authoritative.
His toughness is incomparable.
His presence is nightmarishly chaotic.
The NFL is an organization built of some of the most physically gifted men in the world. And in that class of the elitist, Smith displays power and strength beyond belief. For those watching him from the sidelines, it's a treat, as he is truly an unstoppable force.
Smith is the total package.
He has a combination of upper- and lower-body strength, with immaculate technique and an unrelenting desire. And while his physical abilities are astonishing, it's the heart he plays with that characterizes who Smith really is.
The unfortunate part for opposing teams is that offenses really can't game-plan to stop Justin Smith—no more than they could game-plan to stop Lawrence Taylor. It is in that notion that those two defensive players are quite similar. Their level of dominance and will to do what they would suit up to do was simply unprecedented.
What Justin Smith does for the 49ers is extraordinary. At 32 years young, this guy is full throttle until the whistle blows—and he plays for 60 straight minutes. It's safe to say that this defense would not be quite the same without him. As a tone-setter and game-changer, Smith is one of the great defensive lineman we've seen recently.
He presents a challenge for offenses like few other defenders in this league. With his exceeding persistence and brute force, Smith is a pass-rushing and run-stopping phenomenon.