Aldon Smith is playing fantastic football right now.
Following a five-game absence in which he spent time in a rehab center recovering from substance abuse, Smith had an up and down few games as he eased his way back into a full-time role. Since San Francisco's Week 14 game against the Seattle Seahawks, Aldon has put together as good of a five-game stretch as he's had in his three year career. Propelled by his close to the season, Smith finished the year as Pro Football Focus's fifth highest-graded 3-4 outside linebacker and was third in their Pass Rush Productivity metric.
Telling you that Aldon Smith is a talented player who can rush the passer isn't exactly ground-breaking stuff, I know. But what's been perhaps the most impressive thing about Smith's play as of late is his run defense. When Smith made the move from pass rush specialist in his rookie season to full-time player in his second season, most of the discussion revolved around whether Smith could keep from being a liability in the run game. That concern proved to hold some weight as Smith had an inconsistent year defending the run in 2012.
Over the second half of this season, Smith has become a more consistent, reliable performer against the run. His efforts resulted in a fourth-placed finish in PFF's run defense grades among 3-4 outside linebackers; an impressive feat considering the amount of time he missed.
In Sunday's Wild Card victory over the Green Bay Packers, Smith made his presence felt from the opening snap. Spending most of his time on the right side of the defense, Smith had his way with Packers' left tackle David Bakhtiari throughout the game. As a defense, the 49ers brought more than four pass rushers only five times on the day according to PFF, yet they were able to pressure Aaron Rodgers on 53 percent of his dropbacks. Aldon Smith's performance – along with fellow bookend Ahmad Brooks – was a large reason why San Francisco was able to harass Rodgers with just their front four. Let's go to the All-22 and take a look at how Aldon was able to affect the game and help the 49ers move on to the Divisional Round.
Aldon Smith: Defender of the Run
As I mentioned previously, Smith had an impact on the game from the very first snap, which is where we pick things up here. Green Bay spent the wide majority of the game with their 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) on the field meaning we predominantly saw San Francisco's nickel defense. The Packers have a zone run called to the left side of the offense; right at Smith.
Immediately after the snap, Smith side-steps tight end Andrew Quarless and proceeds to push Bakhtiari four yards into the backfield – with one arm! – right into running back Eddie Lacy. This causes Lacy to have to reverse field, allowing the rest of the San Francisco defense to chase him towards the sideline and make the stop for a minimal gain. It was an incredible display of power by Smith and foreshadowed the type of day it would be for Bakhtiari.
Aldon doesn't get any credit for this play in the box score, but it's obviously a play in which he had a significant impact in its outcome.
On the first play of Green Bay's second drive, Smith was back at it again.
This time around, Green Bay has a one-back power play called. Bakhtiari and left guard Josh Sitton double Justin Smith, saving Bakhtiari from some embarrassment for at least a play. This leaves Quarless responsible for the difficult task of either cutting off Aldon to the inside, opening the hole off the double team for Lacy to run through, or pinning him to the inside, allowing Lacy to bounce it around the edge.
Aldon initially begins working to the inside. Once Quarless is about to engage, Smith stops and hits him with a nasty club move, tossing him several yards to the inside. Quarless lands at the feet of Lacy, causing him to trip before Aldon piles on top of him to finish off the play.
If Quarless is able to execute his block, this play has some potential. Right guard T.J. Lang is pulling up to the second level for Patrick Willis, which would have likely left Lacy one-on-one with Donte Whitner in space. Given the tenacity Lacy was running with on Sunday, we're probably looking at a solid gain for the Packers on this play. But an incredible individual effort by Smith puts a halt to this play before it ever gets going.
Winning in the run game is often about taking on and defeating blockers. You're not always going to be able to outnumber the offense. Someone is going to have to win at the point of attack and make the play on the ballcarrier. He still has room for improvement, but Aldon Smith was able to do that on several occasions against Green Bay. His play was a big part of the reason why San Francisco's nickel run defense had perhaps its best showing since the first time they played the Packers this season.
Aldon Smith: Terrorizer of Quarterbacks
Where Aldon really earns his paychecks – and the reason he is going to command a significant raise in the very near future – is with his ability to get after the quarterback. The struggles of the 49ers' pass defense, and the pass rush in particular, at the end of last season have been well documented. Through one game in this year's playoff run, it does not appear as if the 49ers will have similar issues. Smith had five more quarterback pressures against the Packers, per PFF, giving him 21 in his past five games. His 1.5 sacks on the day brings his career total up to 45.5 sacks in 49 games, including the playoffs.
Aldon's solo sack came midway through the third quarter on a first and 10 play from the Green Bay 27 yard line. As he is on the majority of snaps, Smith is aligned wide to the right side of the defense. Green Bay ends up sliding their protection away from Aldon, leaving him one-on-one with Bakhtiari.
After the snap, Smith initially begins to work upfield. But as he often does, this is just to setup his inside rip move. Bakhtiari is able to fend off this initial move from Smith, but he makes the crucial mistake of getting too much weight on his inside foot. As we saw him do earlier in the game, Smith brings back the club move and sends Bakhtiari to the cold, brown turf. Aldon now has a free path to the quarterback and it's game over for Rodgers who can do nothing but tuck the ball and brace for impact.
This sack had a good amount to do with the coverage, but you really get to see Aldon's rare physical ability on display as well. He's certainly not slow, but his speed is not his biggest asset when pressuring the passer. Instead, it's his power that allows him to overwhelm tackles, creating the opportunity to close on the quarterback in space with his speed. When he's playing at the high level he's been playing at, it forces teams to spend more resources to take him out of the play. The Packers did this on several occasions last week.
On this play, Green Bay elects to cut Smith with Bakhtiari right after the snap before having Lacy come over and give him a shot once he recovers. This allows both Justin Smith and Ahmad Brooks to work one on one. Justin is able to push Sitton back into the lap of Rodgers while Brooks beats right tackle Don Barclay on the outside.
The result is another sack for the 49ers defense. And despite the extra attention he received on the play, Aldon is still able to join in on the fun and help Brooks finish off the play.
This is just one tactic that teams are using to try and neutralize Aldon Smith. Other times, teams will have a tight end or wide receiver who is aligned just a few yards outside of the tackle come down and chip Smith before going out into their route. This was a tactic that Arizona used often in Week 17.
There's no question that Aldon is San Francisco's most talented pass rusher. Teams are going to continue to send additional blockers his way. They're going to do this is a variety of ways to try and keep him off balance. It will be important for the 49ers' other pass rushers to take advantage of one-on-one matchups when the opportunities arise, something Ahmad Brooks and Ray McDonald were able to do on Sunday.
As fun as it was to pick on David Bakhtiari, he's been mostly terrible all season and Aldon is expected to have these types of games when playing inferior opposition. Looking forward to the 49ers upcoming rematch against the Panthers, Smith will face a much more formidable opponent. Carolina left tackle Jordan Gross is among the top tackles in the league, finishing the season with PFF's third highest grade at the position. Another big game from Aldon Smith could go a long way towards reversing the outcome of the Week 10 matchup between these two teams and sending San Francisco on to a third consecutive NFC Championship game.
- Today's links
- 2014 NFL playoff predictions: Divisional round time after going 3 of 4
- Vic Fangio talks Carlos Rogers, Mike Tolbert, DeAngelo Williams and more
- Greg Roman talks Luck Kuechly, defensive line rotation, timeout usage and more
- Carlos Rogers sits out another practice, Demarcus Dobbs limited