Breaking Down What Makes Aldon Smith the NFL's Best Pass-Rusher
At 6’4” and change, 263 pounds, the 2011 first-round selection has developed into the league’s most feared pass-rusher. Smith was drafted as a third-year sophomore from Missouri, having played only four years of organized football his entire life.
But since joining the NFL in September 2011, Smith has accumulated 31.5 sacks in 28 career games (12 starts). And leading the category, he is currently riding a six-game sack streak, gathering 13.0 QB takedowns in that time.
Smith is successful for the same reason that players like Calvin Johnson and J.J. Watt are. And that is because, like them, Smith is a physically gifted, high-ceiling player that fits the system and is passionate about football.
In year two, San Francisco’s premier 3-4 rush linebacker has left his mark on the league in a big way.
Aldon Smith has broken Reggie White's sack-era record for most sacks first two seasons— Mike Sando, ESPN.com (@espn_nfcwest) December 2, 2012
He is a gifted athlete
When it comes to pass-rushing, the film really tells Smith’s story—it’s captivating. He is a no-nonsense competitor and it’s reflective in his style of play. The 49ers outside backer is so gifted athletically that he provides matchup problems on a down-to-down basis, no matter where he lines up.
What makes him unique and sets him apart from other pass-rushers is that he possesses an awfully rare combination of physical gifts.
He has incredible strength—both upper and lower body—that he uses to subdue and control offensive linemen. And as lean as a frame as Smith has, he brings tremendous power and explosion to the game.
Coupled with Smith’s overbearing strength, he brings great speed and quickness to the OLB position. This combination enables him to beat his blocks with some frequency, making him a true enigma for offensive linemen.
Another aspect of his game that is rarely mentioned is his flexibility and elusiveness. Smith is very difficult to get hands on. He is constantly in forward motion, moving toward his target like a homing missile, and is very good at avoiding getting tangled up.
Between his measurables, his dynamic acceleration off the line of scrimmage and his prevailing strength, Smith can beat his opponent in a number of ways. And with his closing speed, he is a great finisher.
The truth is, so few players bring strength and speed to the extreme that Smith does. To simplify things, he is brute force and finesse combined.
He is in a position to succeed
Coming into the league, Smith was very raw, but San Francisco has methodically groomed and transitioned him to be the ultimate pro. When he joined the 49ers, he signed on with a defense that was first-rate in a lot of categories—it was simply missing the element of a dynamic pass-rusher.
Smith was drafted for the sole reason of getting after the quarterback. And on a team with a lot of defensive talent already in place, Smith was able to learn and avoid being the central focus of opposing offenses.
The seventh overall pick from 2011 was a situational player as a rookie, soaking up information and being eased into the lineup.
He’s been able to watch and learn the stand-up linebacker position from two All-Pros in Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. Linebackers Parys Haralson and Ahmad Brooks as well as position coaches Jim Leavitt and Jim Tomsula were also instrumental in his education.
On the field, the 49ers secondary is very effective, buying him time and allowing for coverage sacks. But the overall talent on that side of the football—particularly in the front seven—is truly overwhelming.
No. 99 has also learned work ethic, relentlessness and technique from Justin Smith and San Francisco’s very polished coaching staff.
And perhaps the most important external factor aiding in his on-the-field success has indeed been Justin Smith. The veteran bulldozer has done an excellent job working in tandem with the young dynamo. With his wide frame, No. 94 absorbs double-teams for the second-year pass-rusher, allowing him to get free.
And since Aldon Smith is so fluid in his lateral movements, he can work offensive linemen inside or outside. The partnership of the “Smith Brothers” is very apparent; when one of them has success, it creates opportunities for the other.
For example, Aldon Smith had the best game of his career in 2012, finishing with 5.5 sacks against the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football. Coincidentally, that same week Justin Smith had his best game of the year.
Week 11 vs. Chicago, per Pro Football Focus:
The six quarterback disruptions Justin Smith managed (1 Sk, 5 Hu) are the most in a single game since his dressing down of David Diehl in the 49ers’ conference title game defeat back in January. It also matches the number of pressures he has recorded in the 49ers’ past three games (3 Ht, 3 Hu).
The mental game
Aldon Smith has only been playing the sport of football for five years, having played just two years in college and two in high school. On top of that, he just learned the stand-up linebacker position a year ago after being drafted seventh overall in 2011.
Considering where he ranks in the NFL, he is extremely advanced given his lack of experience. Michael Strahan did not set the single-season sack record (22.5) until he was 30 years old—a record Smith, 23, has in his sights.
It takes a bright mind to be this successful so early into one’s career. Smith’s production has been a byproduct of more than just size and ability.
He understands his role and executes his assignments, utilizing a grand catalog of pass-rush moves.
Off the right edge, it is not uncommon to see Smith running twists and stunts around No. 94, Justin Smith. With impeccable timing and fluid movement, the second-year pro effortlessly attacks the gaps provided to him by his defensive linemen.
It takes an intelligent and mature individual to realize this is a team effort and he doesn’t have to do it all on his own. Smith has no issue using the players around him to his advantage.
He has also revealed himself to be highly instinctual, as he recognizes weaknesses and strikes as a predator. This explains the number of astonishing stat lines he’s accumulated in a short period of time. He has sophisticated improvisational skills as a pass-rusher, and he learns as the game progresses.
The X-factor for No. 99
At the NFL Scouting Combine, Smith’s arm length measured out to 35-and-three-eighths inches. While his measurables are above average, they’re nothing if you don’t know how to use them, and Smith has proved he does.
Smith uses his long arms to keep blockers at bay while he reads the play and creates lanes.
And even though his game as a finesse rusher is well documented, when he’s up close and personal, engaged with a protector, he can dictate the matchup. With his strength and long arms, he can afford to be patient and read the play.
More often than not, Smith’s arms are longer than his opponent's arms, which gives him the edge in the matchup. As a rush linebacker, it’s helped him disengage from protectors and continue pursuit at will.
Smith’s method is controlled chaos; he is violent with his hands but remains in complete control. The strength and long arms are a huge advantage, but he’s developed quick hands and a strong club-and-rip move.
On each and every down, Smith’s ultimate goal is to be disruptive and he uses his length to do so.
The bottom line is, Aldon Smith is as natural a pass-rusher as there has ever been. He is always in the backfield and he gets there in a hurry, showing that he's already one of the more disruptive forces in this league.
Smith gets into the opponent’s backfield with such great frequency that he’s been compared to NFL legends like Lawrence Taylor, Reggie White and Bruce Smith.
On top of his obvious physical gifts, he’s a smart, high-motor player that is in a winning situation in San Francisco. The 49ers found the total package when they added this youngster to their roster.
He is a terror because of his rare ability to get after the passer. For pro offenses, first-year starter Aldon Smith is one of the most problematic players in the NFL.
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