NEW ORLEANS — San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said on Monday that defensive end Aldon Smith’s teammates voted him the squad’s Most Valuable Player for the 2012 season, which would make sense for a player with 19.5 sacks in the regular season. However, there’s just as much of an argument — if not more of one — for the MVP status of defensive tackle Justin Smith. Aldon Smith got all of those sacks in the first 13 games of the season, when Justin was healthy, taking on double- and triple- teams, and allowing Aldon to not only rush outside, but to loop inside through the massive gaps Justin is able to create.
When Justin Smith was injured in the Week 14 game against the New England Patriots and missed the last two regular-season games with a torn triceps, Aldon Smith was blanked as the 49ers went on with Ricky Jean Francois in Justin’s place. Not that Francois played badly, but there’s no substitute for Justin Smith, who Harbaugh said on Monday was one of the greatest players ever to play in the NFL.
Even when Justin Smith came back for the playoffs in wins over the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons, Aldon Smith was still blanked out from a sack perspective. And for a guy who looked to have a pretty good chance of breaking Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record of 22.5, which the future Hall-of-Famer set in 2001.
Of course, the sack statistic isn’t an all-telling one. Many defenders load up on them against inferior competition, but disappear when it’s time to face the NFL’s elite. Aldon Smith certainly is better than that sort of player, but having a goose egg in the stat for five straight games? You’d think that would concern the team.
But from what the 49ers are telling us, they’re not concerned at all.
“Well, there are a couple of things there,” Harbaugh said when I asked him about his primary pass-rusher’s recent change. “With Justin not being in there, that probably plays a part. But the play of Aldon has been really good — he got a game ball for his performance in the Falcons game, because he had a lot of pressures and hurries. He also played the run extremely well and recovered a fumble — overall, he did a really thorough job and had a good game.
“Not having the sacks there — that low-hanging fruit that people see, they don’t always see the things Aldon’s doing so well. That’s why [his teammates] voted him the Most Valuable Player.”
Aldon told me the same thing — throw the sack numbers out, and look at the pressures. From that side of things, he’s been one of the best defenders in the league. According to Pro Football Focus, Smith had 70 total pressures (sacks plus hits plus hurries) in the regular season, among the most in the NFL this year.
“I think besides the quarterbacks throwing the ball [quicker] and me getting double-teamed and triple-teamed — I’m getting back there and creating pressure and making quarterbacks uncomfortable,” Aldon said. “I think the job’s still getting done. The sacks are still happening – I might not be getting them, but somebody is. Really, I think you just saw the attention shift a little bit. Teams were bringing more guys over there [to him], or just changing the way they block.”
Justin Smith, who is very happy to have the extra bye week between the NFC Championship game and the Super Bowl to let his arm continue to heal, echoed the thoughts of others: Don’t look at the stats; watch the tape.
“That’s just a straight statistic, but what you don’t always see is teams play us a little bit differently. Quarterbacks drift on us a little bit more, and we’ve been playing some really good quarterbacks in [Matt] Ryan and [Aaron] Rodgers. They’re timing guys. They’re getting rid of the ball quick. They do their job really well as well, so it makes our job a little bit tougher.
“Aldon, just in this last game [against the Falcons], he was getting lots of pressure. They know when you’re playing a guy like that, he’s going to get more attention, more chipping, he’s going to bring the line over there a little more. What the quarterback knows too is that you have to get rid of the ball. I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t have a clock that goes off when you’re practicing against a guy like Aldon. The ball has to come out in three seconds.”
In Super Bowl XLVII, Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco will most definitely have a clock in his head when he sees Aldon Smith coming. The question is, what will Aldon Smith do to set Flacco, and the Ravens’ offense on edge? Stats or not, this could decide the game.