The San Francisco 49ers will welcome back All-Pro pass-rusher Aldon Smith to the lineup on Sunday when the team hosts the Carolina Panthers, and his return should have the rest of the teams in the NFC quaking in their boots.
As reported by Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group, Smith, after a six-week hiatus—during which time Smith voluntarily entered rehab after being arrested on DUI charges—is ready to hit the field.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio told reporters on Thursday that the linebacker will play on Sunday against the Panthers, according to Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle:
Branch gave a detailed report on the press conference, in which he noted Fangio's comments about the number of snaps Smith could get, and he seemed hopeful his pass-rushing specialist will be back to his tricks sooner rather than later:
He was a little rusty, obviously, from the six-week layoff. But I expect him to get it back very quickly. He’s not like a guy coming off an injury that he’s got to overcome. He’s just to overcome inactivity. You know, six weeks is a fairly long time, but not that long to where he can’t get back into the swings of things pretty quickly.
Before his recent personal challenges took him away from the game for a time, Smith had gotten off to a phenomenal start to his 2013 campaign. Much like we saw from him in his first two seasons (33.5 sacks), the third-year phenom out of Missouri had already racked up 4.5 sacks in his first three games.
Incredibly, even after missing five games, Smith is still the team's sack leader, as noted by Taylor Price of 49ers.com:
Ahmad Brooks (3.5 sacks) and Justin Smith (2.5) have led a rag-tag front seven, as Ray McDonald is battling through a biceps injury and Patrick Willis missed time with a groin injury. Rookie Corey Lemonier also has played exceptionally well, and he'll likely still see plenty of action even when Smith has returned to form.
Losing such a key player, along with the injuries, could have been a death blow to some teams, but remarkably the 49ers got better on defense while Smith was away.
In the five games he missed, San Francisco registered 10 sacks and forced 13 turnovers, holding opposing teams to just 12.2 points per game.
|OPPONENT||SACKS||FORCED TURNOVERS||POINTS ALLOWED|
|St. Louis Rams||5||2||17|
Better still, the 49ers won all five of those games to enter the bye week with a record of 6-2.
Heading into Week 10, the 49ers are just one game behind the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West.
Technically, since Seattle already beat San Francisco earlier this year, the Seahawks have another half-game to their advantage over the 49ers, but a showdown at Candlestick Park on Dec. 8 will give the 49ers—as the two teams' records currently stand—a chance to tie for the NFC West lead.
Along with Smith's return, the 49ers are getting added reinforcements in other areas.
Rookie defensive end Cornelius "Tank" Carradine has been activated, and he's someone the 49ers hope will emerge into a star on the defensive line in the near future.
However, fans should temper short-term expectations. Fangio recently made comments about the young man that seem to indicate he's not quite ready for real-game action, as Chris Biderman of Niners Digest reported:
Vic Fangio said Tank Carradine is "still fighting through his injury and learning the system and playing the way we want to play." #49ers— Chris Biderman (@ChrisBiderman) November 7, 2013
Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham are both active. Crabtree isn't expected to make his debut for a couple more weeks, but Manningham is expected to make his first appearance this Sunday against the Panthers, as Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area reported.
Combined with the league's top rushing offense, the 49ers are shaping up as one of the most dangerous, well-rounded teams in the league.
Smith's pass-rushing prowess will only further amplify what's quickly becoming one of the NFL's most dangerous secondaries.
The 49ers were on a roll before the bye, scoring at least 31 points in all five victories.
Now, with Smith coming back to bolster the league's No. 6-ranked defense and No. 4-ranked scoring defense, it's about to get ugly for teams facing San Francisco.
Which team will win the NFC Championship?
Looking ahead, the 49ers appear to have an easy schedule the rest of the way after Carolina comes to town and the Niners head to New Orleans for a showdown with the Saints.
Of the team's final six games, only one pits the 49ers against a winning team—the Dec. 8 matchup against the Seahawks at Candlestick. San Francisco should beat Carolina this weekend, and it's not out of the question that the 49ers could go undefeated the rest of the way.
The Seattle Seahawks currently have the top seed in the NFC playoff race, but there's no question the 49ers are the team to beat in this conference going into the second half of the season.
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