Since linebacker Aldon Smith’s departure from the San Francisco 49ers, head coach Jim Harbaugh and Co. haven’t missed a beat. As a team, they have won five games in a row, scored 31 points or more in all five contests and moved within one game of the 7-1 Seattle Seahawks.
The midseason turnaround after a 1-2 start has been nothing short of remarkable. Why? Because franchise quarterback Colin Kaepernick hasn’t been the same player he was at the end of last season, and wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham are still recovering from serious lower-leg injuries.
Just imagine what offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s offense will look like in the coming weeks. Manningham is expected to return to the starting lineup Week 10 versus the Carolina Panthers, while Crabtree won’t make his 2013 debut until late November, per ESPN.com.
Yet, that is just the offensive side of the ball. What about the defensive side of the ball? How have they been able to shut the opposition down over the course of the last five weeks? Much like Roman’s offense, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's defense has gone back to the basics.
Instead of beating teams with a blitz-heavy approach, Fangio has been relying on his front seven to get the job done. The biggest impact player in the front seven has arguably been outside linebacker Corey Lemonier. He has made Smith feel like an afterthought.
According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Lemonier has the third-highest pass-rushing grade on the 49ers defense.
In 141 pass-rush snaps, he has tallied one quarterback sack, three quarterback hits and 14 quarterback hurries. Which, in turn, means Lemonier is averaging a quarterback pressure once every 7.8 snaps. That’s an impressive number considering he was a third-round pick who wasn’t supposed to make a lasting impression during his rookie campaign.
However, sometimes all a particular player needs is an opportunity to show he belongs. Even though Lemonier has shown he belongs, there is a million-dollar question looming over his head when Smith returns. How many snaps will the 2012 All-Pro selection take away from the 2012 first-team All-SEC selection?
Coach Harbuagh has been quite mum on Smith’s situation, but general manager Trent Baalke told Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com that the organization has a well-structured plan for the 24-year-old pass-rushing phenomenon.
Despite the fact few details of the plan were shared, Baalke did drop one nugget on the “Bucher & Towny” radio show. He told the San Francisco-based radio station that the front office will evaluate Smith’s condition to play (on the field) on a daily basis.
Unfortunately, he didn’t mention what the off-the-field portion of the plan consisted of. That’s understandable based on the fact they want to keep the info private and in-house. You can’t blame them for wanting that. Odds are, fans and media members alike would find a way to rip Smith one way or another.
For the sake of Smith’s privacy, people should be more focused on his production on the field anyway. No announcement has been made in terms of his return, yet it’s safe to assume he will return after San Francisco’s bye week.
If you missed the news this past week, the 49ers activated the third-year pro from the non-football illness list on Thursday, Oct. 31, per Maiocco. Additionally, the team’s medical staff cleared him for full practice. This means Smith will resume practicing when the Niners take the field after their four mandatory days off amidst the bye week.
If all goes well and Smith makes it through a full week of practice unscathed, expect him to be a package player only. Because of his lack of conditioning, there’s no way he will be able to play 65-70 snaps against the Panthers. In all likelihood, he will be relegated to passing downs like he was his rookie season.
During his first year in the league, he averaged 34 snaps a game. Of those 34 snaps, 27 were recorded in pass-rushing situations and seven were recorded against the run. As we all know, he is at his best when he is given the chance to pin his ears back and attack the quarterback, which is why the plan makes perfect sense.
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Pro Football Focus
Don’t presume Lemonier would leave the field when Smith checks into the game. There’s no question Fangio wants all of his best pass-rushers on the field at the same time, and he will do everything in his power to make it happen.
Lemonier could man one outside linebacker position while Smith could man the other one. As it stands right now, Lemonier spends most of his time at left outside linebacker, and Smith spends most of his time at right outside linebacker.
Sure, Ahmad Brooks and Dan Skuta will have to take a seat when Lemonier and Smith are in the game, but that’s ok. The latter two have proven to be more dynamic edge-rushers anyhow.
How much should Aldon Smith play if he's active against the Carolina Panthers?
Another defensive scenario Dylan DeSimone of Bleacher Report suggested was a four-man defensive line that consisted of Smith, Lemonier, Justin Smith and Tank Carradine. A four-man front is not something the 49ers defense is accustomed to, but it could prove to be a valuable weapon down the stretch.
Not only would it give San Francisco the opportunity to mix up its defensive looks, it would allow San Francisco to rush four players and drop seven into coverage. No blitzing off the edge means better coverage on the back end.
No matter how you slice it, the 49ers are only going to get better as the season rolls on, especially on defense. Smith’s return gives Fangio flexibility, depth, trust and a sense of security at a very important position.
Few pass-rushers in the NFL have Smith’s explosion, closing speed and active motor.
The sacks may not come right away, but his presence alone will help the Niners improve their numbers as a whole on defense. Heading into the bye, they are the ninth-best defense based on yards surrendered per game. Anticipate that number to jump by season’s end.
Undoubtedly, they will be one of the five best units in football heading into the playoffs, thanks in large part to Smith's return.