Edge rusher Aldon Smith figures to play a key role for the 49ers’ defense in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game as it deals with the dual threats of the Seahawks’ conventional, Marshawn Lynch-fueled running game and the scrambling ability of quarterback Russell Wilson.
The good news for the 49ers is Smith has been his disruptive self lately, with head coach Jim Harbaugh going so far this week as to say opponents trying to contain the third-year player with a solo blocker are “whistling Dixie.”
“That’s the way he’s playing right now,” Harbaugh said. “Therefore, he’s getting quite a bit of double-team chips, help from the backs and the tight ends. And he’s really playing well.”
After failing to record a sack in the final six games of last season – postseason included – Smith registered 11/2 in the wild-card game against the Green Bay Packers before being held without one Sunday at Carolina. Still, he was part of a defense that held the Panthers to 93 rushing yards and didn’t allow mobile quarterback Cam Newton (10 rushes, 54 yards) to cause much havoc with his legs.
Smith on Thursday said he feels “a lot more healthy” now than he did at this time last season – likely due in part to his missing five games earlier in the season while attending an out-of-state treatment facility following his second arrest for DUI in two many years. Smith returned in Week 10 against Carolina and was eased back into his normal role.
Harbaugh was asked this week about Smith’s performance and behavior since rejoining the team, both of which have been by most accounts very good.
“I feel very good for Aldon, and he’s carried the water, the biggest share himself. There have been a lot of people that have helped. He’s got a great family, his mother, father, A-plus-plus,” Harbaugh said. “And he’s handling his business. We all tend to forget that the reason we got smart is because we learned from our mistakes. And that’s how you get smart, by learning from your mistakes.”
Harbaugh speaks from his own experience, having been arrested and charged with a DUI in 2005 while he was head coach at the University of San Diego.
Smith, who reportedly has a March 13 court date set for a June 2012 weapons charge and the September DUI, struck a similar tone Thursday when he was asked how far he’s come since his midseason hiatus.
“I’d say I had some adversity and battled through it at the beginning of the year,” he said. “And it means a lot just to be back here a game away from the Super Bowl. That’s all I’m really focused on right now.
“Everybody makes mistakes,” he continued. “It’s just learning from them and moving toward the right direction.”
Smith credited the 49ers with welcoming him back into the fold, something linebacker NaVorro Bowman said was made easier by Smith’s attitude since returning.
“Anytime a guy leaves a team, you expect a guy to come back and work hard and show he missed it and he’s willing to work back to where he was,” Bowman said. “And he’s done all those things. I wouldn’t say he’s a different person, I’d just say he understands his situation and he’s done a great job handling it.”
Smith has been one of the few 49ers who has played well in Seattle. He had two sacks in the 49ers’ 29-3 loss to the Seahawks in Week 2. He said he expects to see more double teams Sunday.
“If it happens, it happens,” he said. “I’m ready to deal with it and keep getting pressure on the quarterback.”
With Wilson, that task falls to the entire front seven of the 49ers. Smith said it will be important for the 49ers’ pass rush to “make sure we’re not rushing as individuals but collectively,” as Wilson is athletic enough to extend plays with his legs and exploit breakdowns in the pressure. The 49ers did a good job of that against Newton, a week after holding Aaron Rodgers mostly in check in Green Bay, and Smith said that’s a product of the defense jelling at the right time.
“We’re coming together, we’re all clicking, and we’ve all got a feeling for each other and how one another does their jobs,” he said. “So the sky’s the limit for us – we’ve just got to keep putting games together, back-to-back.”