When outside linebacker Aldon Smith returned to the San Francisco 49ers after his five-week hiatus, pundits wondered if he would be the same player he was before his stint in rehab. Personally, I was skeptical. I doubted Smith’s ability to put all of his prior distractions behind him.
Based on what we know, off-the-field complications are known to linger until the issue is fully resolved.
Are Smith’s alcohol problems behind him? Only he knows the answer to that question. However, it’s evident that his performances over the course of the past five weeks haven’t suffered because of the obstacles he has had to face in his personal life.
Aside from outperforming expectations, Smith is starting to regain his old form. Weeks 12, 13 and 14 are proof that the third-year pro is again playing at an All-Pro level.
According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the first-round pick out of Missouri has amassed a plus-4.9 grade as a pass-rusher and a plus-4.4 grade against the run since San Francisco’s Monday night game in Washington.
Additionally, Smith has garnered two quarterback sacks, one quarterback hit and 10 quarterback hurries during that same three-game span. Numbers like those have helped push him up the leaderboards.
No, he won’t reach his ridiculous plus-26.9 PFF grade from the 2012 season, but that’s okay, because he is on pace to turn in his most productive season. I’m not solely talking about statistics either, I’m talking about the overall impact he has on the 49ers defense when he is in the lineup week in and week out.
When Smith was out of the lineup, the 49ers defense averaged 1.4 sacks, 3.4 quarterback hits and 13.2 quarterback hurries per game. Since his return, Vic Fangio’s unit has averaged 2.2 quarterback sacks, two quarterback hits and 13.2 quarterback hurries per contest.
You can see that Smith’s appearance in the starting lineup has helped the defense put more pressure on the quarterback.
Furthermore, San Francisco’s numbers have improved in spite of the fact that it has had to square off against more proficient quarterbacks and offensive lines.
However, the 49ers’ pass rush wasn’t the only area that saw a bump in production upon Smith’s reentry. Coincidentally enough, San Francisco’s defense improved against the pass as well. In Weeks 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8, the Niners allowed 234.4 yards per game through the air.
In Weeks 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14, the Niners surrendered a mere 177.6 yards per game through the air.
Without a doubt, the 49ers are playing championship football on defense and hitting their stride at just the right time—thanks in large part to Smith.
His stats only tell a small part of the story, though. To fully understand the type of impact he has on San Francisco’s defense, you have to break down the game tape.
On this first play, we will examine Smith’s skill set as a pass-rusher.
Prior to the snap, Smith was lined up at the right outside linebacker position. The 49ers defense deployed a 3-3-5 look. The 3-3-5 was used to counter the Washington Redskins' 11-personnel grouping.
As soon as the ball was snapped, Smith knocked Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams off his base. From that point on, it was game over for Williams.
Williams never had enough time to recover, which in turn allowed Smith to work his way back up the field. Once he disengaged and worked his way back to quarterback Robert Griffin III, the 258-pound linebacker dropped the second-year signal-caller for his second sack of the game.
Even though Smith made the play look routine, a lot of hard work and effort went into the play. He displayed explosion out of his stance, top-notch short-area quickness, great upper-body strength and tremendous hustle.
Nonetheless, that’s the way it should be. Great players make each play look effortless on a weekly basis.
This second play hones in on Smith’s ability versus the run.
The St. Louis Rams' offense used a 22-personnel set to open up a running lane for running back Zac Stacy. In theory, the play call should have helped the Rams pick up more than one measly yard, but Smith blew up the run before it could even get started.
At the right outside linebacker position, Smith was matched up against All-Pro left tackle Jake Long. Long isn't a player who is easily beat in any situation, yet No. 99 made quick work of him.
By beating Long off the snap with an inside swim move, Smith was able to meet Stacy in the backfield and take him down with ease.
Smith may have only registered a tackle in the box score, but like in the first play, he presented short-area quickness, proper arm extension at the point of attack and exceptional closing speed.
It’s rare to see such a young player dominate the game the way he does. The sky is the limit for Smith, and he has known that for quite a while.
Here’s what the star linebacker told Joan Niesen of SI.com shortly after the 49ers drafted him in 2011: “The sky's the limit for me, as long as I keep working hard. I just have to take advantage of the resources around me.”
It’s obvious Smith has taken advantage of the resources around him. Despite his off-the-field problems, he has convinced the coaching staff that he is coachable, hard-working and dedicated to his craft.
Even after a 19.5-sack season in 2012, Smith told Jimmy Durkin of the Contra Costa Times that he was motivated to improve on his performance from his sophomore season.
It’s safe to say that Smith has improved. He has improved as a pass-rusher, against the run and in pass coverage. What more could the 49ers ask for? At this point, they should just be happy with his progress considering the circumstances.
Shoot, three months ago, some wondered if the 24-year-old would ever play football again.
Sometimes all a player needs is a particular event to help put things in perspective. It’s apparent that Smith got the message. He looks better than he ever has.
If the 49ers want to make noise in the playoffs for the third time in as many years, there’s no question they will need Smith to continuously lead the charge.
Why? Because there may not be a player on the 53-man roster who means more to the Niners defense than Smith does.