It has been anything but a positive start for the first-team San Francisco 49ers defense this preseason.
Facing the first-team offenses of the Minnesota Vikings, Houston Texans, and Denver Broncos, they have failed to make a lasting impression. They have even gotten plastered by the latter two offenses led by Matt Schaub and Peyton Manning. Keep in mind those two offenses should be above-average this season but is still not a good sign for a defense that is supposedly the NFL's best.
Part of this has been due to the loss of second-year linebacker Aldon Smith who is transitioning to becoming a full-time starter. There are more than a few factors that might contribute to his sophomore problems this year.
One of these are his off-the-field issues that he has experienced since the end of the NFC Championship game. When he first arrived in the National Football League, one of the knocks on him was that he was immature and maybe unable to handle the everyday lifestyle of the league. So far, he has gotten into two incidents, the first being an arrest for DUI, according to KTVU. The second for a shooting at a party he was throwing at his house, as reported by Mark Gomez of MercuryNews.com.
While neither of these were major issues, it does provide ammunition to the notion that he is still immature. His apologists will argue that he is merely 22, but the fact remains that these events happened. One more, and we may be seeing a trend.
The other obstacle this season, and the tougher one to overcome, may be his transition to being the full-time starter at outside linebacker replacing Parys Haralson. Last season, Smith was only put into the game to essentially do one thing: rush the passer. He was specifically put in on passing downs to rush the quarterback, making his job easier than most. A player with his unique blend of speed and athleticism made it hard for offensive lineman to keep in front.
However, this year he will be forced to have many more responsibilities. It's always good to have All-World linebackers Patrick WIllis, NaVorro Bowman, defensive superstar Justin Smith and underrated defensive end Ray McDonald in front of you, but he will be facing an uphill challenge when guarding smaller running backs and shedding blocks for tackles.
The schedule the 49ers face makes his task even more formidable. They not only start at Lambeau Field where they must face Aaron Rodger's aerial assault, but must also play the Detroit Lions, New York Giants, Chicago Bears, at the New Orleans Saints, and at the New England Patriots.
Smith certainly possesses the talent to perform the task and even excel but the odds seem to be against him this season. We may see Haralson regain his starting spot back in spurts to give Smith some rest against the better passing teams.
Lastly, he is facing a hip injury that does not seem serious but he has not played in the past two preseason games and hasn't practiced much since then. All these factors mesh together to create issues that may parlay into a down season from the super rookie sack specialist from last season.
Luckily, the 49er elite defense appears able to withstand such a fall from Smith, but in order for their Super Bowl dreams to come to fruition, they will need an Aldon Smith playing well at 100 percent.