Can Aldon Smith break the single-season sack record? He is just 5.5 sacks short with four games left. It would take a brave person to bet against the prolific pass-rusher.
Since being drafted by the San Francisco 49ers seventh overall in 2011, Smith has dominated quarterbacks. He won Defensive Rookie of the Year honors from the Pro Football Writers of America with 14 sacks in his first season and finished second in the Associated Press vote to Denver's Von Miller.
By adding 17.5 sacks already in 2012, Smith has the most sacks in a season in 49ers history. He's also passed the late, great Reggie White as the fastest player to 30 or more sacks.
The next record in the dominant rush end's sights is the 22.5 sacks posted by Michael Strahan in 2001.
The ex-New York Giants defensive end set the mark in controversial fashion on the season's final day. Then-Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre gave himself up, allowing Strahan to seal the record.
Smith is in a strong position to set a new total. He is the best pure pass-rusher in today's NFL. Tall, angular and with exceptional reach and takeoff speed, Smith is a nightmare for every offensive tackle he faces.
He is also helped by the strength of the 49ers' defensive personnel, particularly up front. Defensive linemen Justin Smith and Ray McDonald overpower blockers and help create plenty of one-on-one matchups on the outside. Their natural power and line stunts knock open numerous rush lanes for Smith to exploit with his speed.
As much as he is assisted by a stellar supporting cast, Smith also benefits from superior coaching. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is a shrewd schemer who knows what he has in Smith. He moves his star playmaker around the formation, usually keeping him away from a tight end.
Fangio also gives Smith freedom to run his own games with the defensive line. This means many inside twists that create havoc for offensive lines and pit Smith's fleet-footed agility against cumbersome guards.
However, does all that mean Smith can surpass Strahan's mark?
Looking at the schedule, there's no doubt Smith faces some tough offensive lines. Week 14 sees him take on the Miami Dolphins, where Smith will catch a break since premier left tackle Jake Long is injured and out for the season.
A crucial NFC West matchup against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 16 could be tougher than it appears. The Seahawks offensive line is better than advertised, with young tackle Russell Okung leading an improved unit. A mobile quarterback like rookie Russell Wilson also presents a challenge to Smith.
Finishing the season at home against the Arizona Cardinals should give Smith encouragement. The Cardinals offensive line is inexperienced and weak. Smith could have another monster game, similar to his 5.5-sack showing against the Chicago Bears in Week 11.
Smith's remaining opponents are tricky, but far from daunting. He is in the right defense to set a new standard for single-season pass-rushing dominance.
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