It’s not a matter of if, but a matter when Aldon Smith will be suspended by the NFL.
The San Francisco 49ers’ linebacker met with commissioner Roger Goodell on August 7, but official word is yet to come down on exactly what the discipline will be for his various off-the-field infractions. The team expects to hear for sure before the season begins, but in the meantime have to prepare as if Smith will be gone for a while.
“Because you have a feeling something may happen at this point of the season, everyone’s getting reps now,” said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. “All the guys that may play for him — (Dan) Skuta, (Corey) Lemonier, (Aaron) Lynch, (Chase) Thomas — have been getting a lot of reps, so they’re all ready to go.”
The fact that Fangio has been able to prepare for Smith’s absence already puts him in a better position than he was last season when the linebacker was abruptly taken out of the lineup after Week 3 to enter a substance abuse program.
Smith would go on to miss five consecutive games, but the team seemed to hardly miss him. San Francisco went 5-0 without Smith, and the defense only gave up an average of 12 points a game during that stretch.
The plan was to use Dan Skuta on first and second down, and then bring in Corey Lemonier to rush the passer. The two replacements were up to the task, and while they didn’t put up the sack numbers Smith does, they still provided the 49ers with steady play.
2014 will no doubt be more of the same. There’s always a the possibility that Aaron Lynch could see some snaps rushing the passer, but for the most part it will be Skuta and Lemonier reprising their familiar roles. The question is, will Skuta/Lemonier produce the same results in year two?
It’s hard to say because the 49ers’ defense has more questions than last season. They will be without NaVorro Bowman who some would say carried the unit in Smith’s absence. The Niners are also breaking in new starters in the secondary with Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver and Antoine Bethea taking the places of Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and Donte Whitner.
There could be growing pains early on while players adjust to their newer roles, and that may exploit any weaknesses Skuta and Lemonier may have.
There is also the issue of Smith getting himself back to game speed when he does return. That in itself could take a week or two.
In the end, the best thing the 49ers can probably hope for is that Smith will be back after four games. Still, the team has to prepare for the worst in the event he’s out longer. The situation will be a major test for San Francisco and its coaching staff.
Photo: USA TODAY
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