The San Francisco 49ers (5-1) are coming off their bye week, preparing to face the 3-3 Cleveland Browns in week 8 at Candlestick Park. From a broad perspective, the match-ups in this game seem overwhelmingly in favor of the 49ers, but there is one contest I am particularly interested in watching.
49ers rookie outside linebacker Aldon Smith will be facing off against All-Pro tackle, and arguably the best offensive lineman in the game, Joe Thomas. At 6'6, 312-pounds, Thomas has been the anchor that has held that Cleveland offensive line together. Whether it is in the run game or in pass protection, Thomas has been in a league of his own.
Meanwhile, in the Bay Area, a rookie has been making waves for a much improved 49ers defense. Smith, another freakish specimen at 6'5, 258-pounds, is off to an impressive start, winning back-to-back NFL Pepsi Rookie of the Week honors before the bye week and leading the Niners in sacks with 5 1/2.
Niners defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has had Smith in multiple positions in the front seven, but more often than not, he is getting his reps on the right side -- parallel with where Thomas will be. Now while Fangio will likely move Smith around to get him free rushes at Colt McCoy, it will be interesting to see how he does against a true pro in Thomas.
Smith has a better supporting cast than Thomas; I think one of the keys to victory Sunday will be the 49ers dominating in the trenches. The play from Ray McDonald, Isaac Sopoaga, Ricky Jean-Francios and Justin Smith has been tremendous this season, and easily a major reason to the rookie's fast start.
Smith has a plethora of pass rush moves that seem to come in all different combinations. When he faces Thomas, Smith is going to need to learn real quick what works and what doesn't. There are a lot of factors that dictate Thomas having the edge in this match: experience, size and strength. But Smith may have some moves that Thomas may not be ready for; the youngster should look to use his balance, wingspan and speed to make up for what he lacks.
What we've seen from the first round pick thus far is that he has a knack for getting in the oppositions backfield. I doubt Smith is thinking about the names of the players in his way, and instead just focuses on creating havoc. It's still very early in his NFL career, but how he plays against Thomas and the Browns Sunday will be a great measurement to see where he's at.
Smith has heated up as the season progressed and the coaches began putting him in situations where he could succeed immediately. It will great to see if he can be a consistent contributor week to week, and how he performs coming off a bye.
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