Aldon Smith declared for the 2011 NFL Draft after a sub-par Red Shirt Sophomore year. His sack numbers went way down, and a lot of people in the draft community seemed to be a bit ambivalent towards him as a prospect. Assuredly, he was greatly affected by a fractured fibula injury, but watching him play his RS SO year didn’t make him seem like he’d be an upper echelon pass rusher in the NFL, especially right off the bat. In addition to Smith’s down year, his combine numbers weren’t of the same caliber of other “freak” athletes either. Another thing was that it always appeared to me as Smith looked better rushing from the inside, and had a lot of his production come from the DT spot. This was one of many reasons to question how Smith would fare in the NFL.
Recently, I’ve been watching a lot of Smith as a San Francisco 49er and as a Missouri Tiger to see where some of Aldon’s detractors went wrong in their evaluation. I’ll start by stating that it is undeniable that the leg injury had major impact on his final season. In the NFL, he has shown more of an initial burst and better closing speed. I still don’t think he has that amazing first step that most everyone seems to want to have out of a pass rusher. Perhaps playing OLB has helped him in that regard. However, the main thing that has stood out to me in watching his success, and that hasn’t changed much from college to the pros, is his hand usage. Smith possesses an extremely powerful punch, strong hands, and overall impressive activity and violence with his very long arms. It seems to me as if these qualities were really undersold in most people’s evaluations of Smith, and perhaps in most pass rushers in general.
Here’s an example of the pure violence and activity in Aldon’s arm/hand usage. He simply casts Jeff Backus’ arm away as he is going to end up getting the sack for a safety on Matt Stafford. (Note: I also felt as if this play was when you could REALLY notice the difference in Smith’s closing ability in his rookie year as compared with his RS Soph campaign)
Then there’s pure power. Aldon doesn’t generate a ton of production as someone who dips their shoulder and runs the arc. If you aren’t going to do that well, you have to be doing something exceptions to notch 14 sacks while being used mainly as a sub package defender. The power rush is Aldon’s bread and butter. In the following image, Smith pops into Donald Penn’s chest with so much authority that he nearly lifts him off the ground en route to the QB.
However, this might have been my favorite play of Aldon Smith’s rookie year. Not only does he win the initial hand positional battle against Harvey Dahl, but his punch and subsequent drive packs so much power that he’s going to send Dahl to the ground before he takes down AJ Feely for the sack.
While I’ve attributed quite a bit of Aldon Smith’s success to his hand usage, I must also give credit to the 49ers coaching staff and DE Justin Smith. One defensive play call they frequently used was the end twist stunt. This play was something the 49ers went to often due to how effective it was for them last year. The end twist stunt has Justin Smith, who is lined up on the inside eye of the LT, firing straight ahead.
The LG is forced to immediately pick up Justin Smith, while the LT begins his kick slide to block Aldon Smith, who he assumes will be coming off the edge.
Now, normally with this play we would see Aldon Smith looping inside between the C and the LG. However, the 49ers have their DT slant across the line. Therefore the RG has to pass him off to the C, while Justin Smith is still preoccupying the LG and the LT. The RG never expects to see Aldon Smith on this play, so he stays to help with the DT. By the time he realizes what is happening, Aldon already has a huge lane to get to Colt McCoy for the sack.
Violent hands and arms, along with leverage, and some creative usage by the 49ers allowed Aldon Smith to notch 14 sacks as a rookie. While spending time at defensive tackle and having more success at that spot in college has been met with a bit of a negative stigma recently due to players like Jamaal Anderson, it certainly appears to have played a role in the development of Aldon Smith as a pass rusher. The next step for Aldon is being able to stay on the field as a base defender, as opposed to solely coming in for nickel and dime situations. However with his skill set and the talent around him on the 49er defense, Smith’s success as a lethal pass rusher should continue.