Aldon Smith: Breaking Down What Makes Him a QB's Nightmare
As a division, the NFC West rarely gets much love. Most of the time they are looked at as bottom dwellers of the football world.
Every few years it seems like one of the four teams will go through a spurt where they dominate and make a run through the playoffs. But that window of success never really seems to last all that long.
Currently, the 49ers are the hot team everyone is talking about. They enjoyed surprise success in 2011 as no one really expected a 13-3 season. Everyone always knew they had the talent on their roster to make a push, but for whatever reason they never could seem to put it all together.
One of the biggest reasons behind the teams turnaround was their high level of defensive play. Every starter seemed to make an impact in a big way; they had very few players who consistently graded out in a negative manner as the season went on.
According to Pro Football Focus, San Francisco finished as the second best pass rushing team in the NFL based on sacks, quarterback hits and hurries.
As one watches, it becomes transparent as to why they are so successful at rushing the passer. They have dominant interior lineman who work hand in hand with the outstanding edge rushers.
What characteristics make Aldon Smith a quarterback's worst nightmare?
Last season, 49er fans saw this time after time as Aldon Smith would use his brute strength to overpower and out muscle his opponent in pursuit of the quarterback.
Smith's upper body strength is so important to his game as his pass rushing repertoire isn't extensive in terms of maneuvers. However, that didn't stop him from finishing as one of the league's most dominant pass rushers.
In the video above, Smith introduces himself to left tackle Adam Goldberg in a big way. Watch as he leaves his stance and immediately heads for Goldberg's outside shoulder. Once he has made contact with the outside shoulder he heads back inside to finish him off. Just an absolute shock to the offensive lineman as everything happens so quickly.
It's truly remarkable that Smith is only 22 years old. He hasn't even fully matured into his frame yet. The potential to add ten more pounds of muscle and get even stronger is there, so watch out as he continues to fill out.
With a wingspan of 83 7/8-inches, you're bound to do some damage. General manager Trent Baalke has referred to Smith's gas-hose arms as "levers."
Offensive tackle Joe Staley works against the pass rushing phenom every day in practice and has noticed the advantage Smith's long arms have. Staley had this to say last year before the season even started:
Usually when you see defensive ends or pass rushers with the long arms, they’re not too strong with it, they have the long arms to kind of get your hands off of them. But with Aldon, he’s strong, too, so that he can really use them as an advantage. Those things are real long. He put one on me the other day and I was like fully extended and I couldn’t even touch his body.
In the clip above, he's working against Max Starks who's 6'8 and has an adequate wingspan of his own. From the get go, Smith extends out and continuously makes contact with Starks' chest; at no point does he give him the opportunity to make contact back.
The continual jabbing and pushing drives Starks back, which eventually knocks his balance off center, allowing Smith to disengage and swoop right around for the sack.
Smith's 4.74 40-yard-dash from the NFL scouting combine doesn't really do his game speed justice. However, when the pads go on, Smith moves like a missile who is seeking a target.
The speed of the game is constantly changing, especially when you move from one level to the next. When he made the jump from high school to college it was seamless, and when he jumped from college to the pro's it was effortless.
On this play, Smith has his hand off the ground and is rushing from the right outside linebacker position. Observe how far he has to run in a short amount of time. It only takes him 2.4 seconds from the time the ball is snapped to the moment where he makes contact with Colt McCoy.
There are very few players who can cover that much space in a short period of time. Not one of the Browns offensive lineman expected him to be in the backfield that quick. No. 55 Alex Mack was the first one to notice Smith's pursuit of the quarterback. And by the time he did, it was too late as McCoy was already wrapped up.
One of the biggest praises Smith received during the predraft process was the fact that he had a high energy motor that never quit. So-called experts and talent evaluators agreed that with him you're going to get 110 percent every down.
Based on his snaps from last season, that prior evaluation couldn't have been more spot on. There is one specific play that stands out to me from the 49ers Week 14 game against the Cardinals.
On this particular play, things have broken down in the backfield. So John Skelton takes off for the first down marker, but before he can slide, Smith tracks him down from five yards behind and strips the ball out.
While the play almost looks routine, pay attention to the split second hesitation he has. At the two or three second mark in the video, you can see Smith freezes as he is unaware as to what's taking place. Once he realizes what's going on it's almost as if he has to restart his motor and get wound up again.
Truly an impressive play that he makes look far too easy.
Earlier, I talked about Smith's arm extension and how he uses it to his advantage. Nonetheless, that's not the only thing he does when rushing the passer.
One of his most raved about skills is his ability to use his hands to fend off offensive lineman who are trying to seal him off.
The guy has some definite meat hooks; they measured in at nearly ten inches at the scouting combine. To put that number in perspective, the average man's hand size is about eight inches.
On this particular play, Smith is working against Cardinals offensive tackle Jeremy Bridges. It may be hard to see, but focus in on the way Smith moves his hands across Bridges chest. He starts with his arms extended and as he closes his reach gets shorter and shorter, which makes him more reliant on hand placement and usage.
By the time he's ready to make an inside move, he's already pushed Bridges out of the way with his hands, so his path to the quarterback is short and wide open.