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San Francisco 49ers: How a Potential Aldon Smith Suspension Impacts the Defense

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San Francisco 49ers: How a Potential Aldon Smith Suspension Impacts the Defense
Noah Berger/Associated Press

Aldon Smith will almost certainly begin the 2014 season suspended, according to a source quoted by Pro Football Talk.

This is not a surprise.  Smith pleaded no contest to DUI and weapons charges, and faces sentencing on July 25. 

While it’s likely he’ll avoid any jail time, this is still a plea that will cause the NFL to bring down a suspension on the troubled linebacker.  The only question is how long such a suspension would be.

There has been some talk that the league would consider Smith’s five-game rehab stint last season as part of his punishment, reducing a potential suspension, but that seems somewhat doubtful. 

The weapons charges pre-date the rehab, and while Roger Goodell has said that the rehab will be a factor when it comes to substance abuse, that doesn’t cover everything.  The weapons charges, plus the bizarre bomb-threat story at LAX means it’s not a surprise that Smith will face some kind of sanction.

How long of a suspension will it be?  That’s a harder question to answer.

Typical substance-abuse suspensions are around four games, but the NFL historically hasn’t suspended players for first-time DUIs.  They want tougher penalties but haven’t come to an agreement with the players' union on what those penalties should be.

Noah Berger/Associated Press
Smith has had more than his fair share of legal issues.

Was this Smith’s first DUI?  That’s hard to answer, as well.  Smith was arrested in 2012 on suspicion of DUI, but those charges were later reduced to reckless driving

Will the NFL count that as a prior DUI and attempt to suspend him for that?  That would be a tricky case to bring before the players' association, and coupled with Smith’s voluntary stay in rehab, I think that won’t be the case.

That leaves the weapons charges, a pretty clear violation of the NFL’s personal conduct policy.

There are two cases from 2012 of players with somewhat similar situations being suspended.  

Aaron Berry was suspended for three games after being arrested for DUI and pointing a gun at three people in a parking lot.  Kenny Britt was suspended one game thanks to his legal issues as well, including resisting arrest and careless driving.

Smith’s offseason seems more tumultuous than Britt’s and less than Berry’s, so a two-game suspension would fit right between them. 

I wouldn’t be surprised with anything up through a four-game suspension, but anything more than that seems a little out of place when compared to recent disciplinary action by the league.

That would mean Smith would miss the season opener against the Dallas Cowboys, followed by games against Chicago, Arizona and Philadelphia with progressively less likelihood. 

The Bears, Cardinals and Eagles all had negative pass blocking grades from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) last season, leaving the opener against Dallas as being the game where Smith’s absence would be most keenly felt.

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
Lemonier and Skuta were serviceable in Smith's absence.

In the 14 games Smith played last season, including the postseason, Smith recorded 13 sacks, 13 QB hits, and 43 QB hurries (subscription required). 

In the five games he missed, replacements Corey Lemonier and Dan Skuta combined for just one sack, three QB hits and 21 QB hurries.  That’s actually a higher rate of hurries per game, but neither could finish the play as well as Smith could.

All things considered, however, the 49ers stayed fairly solid on defense without Smith in the lineup.  Their worst three games of the season, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA, all featured Smith: Week 2 at Seattle, Week 10 versus Carolina, and Week 11 at New Orleans.

2014 San Francisco 49ers Defense Per-Game Stats
Weeks Pass Yards Pass YPA TD Sacks INT Rush Yards Rush YPA TD
With Smith 210.4 6.50 1.1 2.9 0.9 103.5 3.88 0.9
Without Smith 234.4 5.63 1.2 2 1.4 83.6 3.87 0.2

Pro Football Reference

You can see the 49ers stats didn’t drop off too significantly on a per-game basis, even with Smith out of the lineup.  The pass rush wasn’t quite as effective, resulting in less sacks and more yards allowed, but part of that is just due to the quality of opponents and game flow. 

All five games without Smith were big wins against lesser opponents, meaning more prevent defenses and soft shells.  That allows teams like Jacksonville or Houston to generate garbage-time stats, somewhat inflating their pass-yardage totals.

Is Aldon Smith replaceable?  No, but the combination of Lemonier and Skuta did a good job of holding down the fort while he was out last season, and the other linebackers picked up the slack. 

The added difficulty the 49ers will have in 2014, however, is that they’ll be missing NaVorro Bowman at the same time, leaving two holes in the starting lineup.

The 49ers are good enough to absorb the loss of one of their stud linebackers without missing a beat, but replacing two simultaneously will put a lot of pressure on Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks.  It is probably too much to expect for the team not to miss a beat in the first few weeks of the season.

Evan Vucci/Associated Press
The key to beating Tony Romo is getting pressure.

This is not a good thing for Week 1 against Dallas. 

Quarterback Tony Romo’s among the worst in the league when pressured, but he’s the fourth-highest-rated quarterback with a clean pocket, according to Pro Football Focus. 

There’s not a quarterback in the league who has such a wide disparity between his abilities with and without time. Losing stud pass-rushers like Smith and Bowman against Romo could be the recipe for seeing a repeat of Romo’s amazing performance against Denver last season.

Will the 49ers be able to weather the storm?  In the long run, yes. 

The team is too talented to fall too far behind thanks to Smith’s absence.  However, the loss of Smith will make the opening schedule, already a fairly tough one, that much more difficult.

The 49ers will need to be satisfied with the knowledge that Smith’s suspension and Bowman’s injury will probably be in their rear-view mirror by the time matchups against Seattle, San Diego and New Orleans roll around at the end of the year. 

Until then, however, the remaining linebackers will have to work overtime to make up for Smith's and Bowman's absences.

 

Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers.  Follow him on Twitter @BryKno.

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