Yesterday we posted about Patrick Willis' victory as NFL Alumni Linebacker of the Year and the day before Ninjames took a look at Justin Smith and the 49ers defensive ends. I bring these post up because they got me thinking about the two best players on the 49ers defense. While Takeo Spikes had a solid season, I would argue Patrick Willis and Justin Smith have consistently been the two biggest factors on the defensive side of the ball. Spikes finished second on the team in tackles and was an integral part of the 49ers defense, but I felt it was proper to narrow this down to Smith vs. Willis.
My question is which of these two has been most important to the 49ers defense? Try and narrow the discussion down to this past season, but you're more than welcome to look to previous seasons for both players. My initial reaction would be that Patrick Willis is the more important of the two. However, as I think it over I believe there are some arguments for the value of Smith in the 49ers defense as compared to Willis.
The big reason Patrick Willis would be a bit higher would be his crazy athleticism. His position as an inside linebacker provides a broad territory to cover and he does so with relative ease. One of my favorite Bamm Bamm plays (a growing list) was when he ran down Chris Johnson near the end zone a couple years back. Johnson was running to his left and as he made his way to the get around the end, Willis swooped in and brought him down. My all-time favorite Willis play saw him run down Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Sean Morey from a solid ten yards back and prevent a game-winning touchdown.
On the other hand we've got Justin Smith who is as blue collar as they come. Smith is athletic enough considering his size, but when it comes to his role on the defensive line, he sticks with the bull rush. Rather than try and finesse his opponents or blow around them, he just lowers his head and pounds through defenders. What might be most amazing is how effective he is in getting to the QB. He led the team with a career high 8.5 sacks in 2010 and it seemed like he was consistently getting to the QB even if he wasn't getting sacks.
For a 3-4 defensive end that's pretty impressive. The 3-4 defensive end is often utilized to take up blockers and open holes for outside linebackers to make plays. The 49ers OLBs are fairly inconsistent, which makes Smith's work all the more important. He's making up the pass rush the team isn't consistently getting from the OLBs. Many would argue Smith would be better utilized as a 4-3 defensive end, but that's not a choice right now.
The argument for Smith is the idea that he drastically improves the pass rush in a role that shouldn't see that kind of pass rushing. I still think Willis' ability to get across the field as needed and make plays all over the field brings brings more value. However, I can see the argument for Justin Smith at least being in the picture. Would anybody be willing to go out on a limb and make a more specific argument why Justin Smith might be more valuable to the 49ers defense?