When the San Francisco 49ers announced that their star outside linebacker, Aldon Smith, was going to take a indefinite leave of absence, their wasn’t much hope for optimism. The team had just dropped it’s second game in a row to fall to 1-2 and were outscored 56-10 in those losses. Surely, losing a pass rusher as dominant as Smith would spell trouble for a Niners squad that was struggling to find it’s way even with him in the lineup.
But a funny thing happened on the way down the tunnel to doom and gloom. The 49er defense actually came together as a unit.
San Francisco is in the midst of a four game winning streak and it’s defense has lead the way. The 49ers have outscored opponents 132-51 during this run and are only allowing 12.7 points per game. They have also been very opportunistic on defense, creating 11 turnovers over the last four games after only having three in Weeks 1-3. The 49ers offense has made the most of the opportunities the defense has given them, scoring on the drive following each of those 11 turnovers (seven touchdowns and four field goals).
A major reason for the jump in takeaways has been to assertion of Tramaine Brock into the lineup as the nickel cornerback. Since taking over for Nnamdi Asomugha in Week 4, Brock has three interceptions and six passes defended. While Asomugha looked slow and past his prime, Brock looks like a player coming into his own.
While Aldon Smith was in the lineup, the 49ers registered 7 sacks over the first three weeks. Smith had 4.5 of those and often looked like the only player able to get any kind of consistent pressure. With Smith out though, the 49ers have looked more balanced in their pass rush. They have 10 sacks over their last four games which is a slightly higher average than when Smith was in the lineup (2.3 per game with him and 2.5 per game without him). During that time, six different players have gotten to the quarterback and Justin Smith and Ahmad Brooks lead the way with 2.5 a piece. Rookie Corey Lemonier, who plays Smith’s vacated position on passing downs, has also supplied decent pressure and made his one sack count. It went for a safety against the Arizona Cardinals.
Now the fact that the 49ers’ defense has played better in Smith’s absence does not mean that they are better off without him. Smith is a game changing pass rusher who has 38 sacks in 35 career games and would make any defense better. Did the 49ers perhaps rely too much on Smith to provide most of the pass rush when he was in the lineup? It’s possible, but what the 49ers have done is play excellent fundamental team defense in his absence. The question is, can the unit carry that over when Smith returns to the lineup?
The answer to that question may come sooner rather than later ashead coach Jim Harbaugh said that he hopes to have Smith rejoin the team in the next “couple of weeks.” The 49ers travel to London to play the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 8 and then have a bye. It’s possible Smith could be back for the Week 10 macthup at home against the Carolina Panthers.
If and when he does come back, it may take some time for Smith to get back up to speed and playing at a high level. Even if there are some struggles at first, it reassuring that the 49ers have proven they have the depth and talent to withstand it. Still, getting the All Pro back will go long way in the helping San Francisco achieve it’s goal of making it back to the Super Bowl.
Photo: Getty Images
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