Aldon Smith: Stunts, Size and Sacks By Proxy

Smith has had reason after reason after reason to celebrate since entering the NFL.

Jim Harbaugh has done next to nothing wrong since taking over the San Francisco 49ers ahead of the 2011 season. Harbaugh has brought a franchise from a 6-10 regular season full of turmoil and failure, through a 13-3 division crown on their way to being runners up in the Super Bowl. Only runners up because of one goalline play where the potential franchise quarterabck he drafted couldn’t connect with the young receiver who’s career he put on the right track.

Harbaugh is a young man who has many, many different, difficult and important decisions in his future. However, if all goes to plan, his future success may be built around the first major move that he really made after being hired for his first head coaching job at this level.

When Harbaugh took over the 49ers, he was inheriting a very talented roster, but crucially, that roster had under-performed to the point that the team had a top 10 pick in the 2011 draft. Adding a top 10 talent from a draft class that would become famous because of it’s talent at the very top seemed downright unfair. At least, it seems downright unfair in hindsight.

Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke used that seventh overall selection on Aldon Smith. Smith played two years of college football at Missouri and racked up 17 sacks during that span. Despite playing for a relatively short span in college, he entered the draft with a littered resumé and won scouts over with his incredible frame and athleticism during the buildup.

Smith is 6’4, 260 lbs and runs a 4.7 40. Crucially, his frame has next to no unnecessary weight on it and his arms are very long. In a sense, if you wanted to build a perfect body for a pass-rushing outside linebacker or defensive end, then this was exactly what you would build. Once Smith entered the league, he proved from the start that he had the football talent to succeed also.

By the end of his second season, he had set a franchise record for sacks in a single season, been named an All-Pro and played a pivotal role in helping his team to the Super Bowl. In short, Aldon Smith has started his career the way every child with football aspirations starts his dreams.

However, even though the statistical production point to perfection, question marks arose about whether Smith was truly a great player already or if he was simply benefiting from the situation. Was he getting sacks because he was overcoming attention from the offense? Or was he just benefiting from the freedom that comes with playing alongside Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, Ahmad Brooks and Navorro Bowman.

In order to find out, PSR looked back at all of his sacks from this season just like previous articles did for JJ Watt and Von Miller.

Smith’s Overall Results

Despite being a pass-rushing specialist during his rookie season, Smith quickly became an ever-present player for the 49ers’ defense last season. Outside of the four starting defensive backs, he had the most snaps on the field for the defense last year with 1,223. That was good enough for over 95 percent of his team’s total snaps. Smith rushed the passer 649 times and completed the journey 22 times for a sack percentage of 3.1 percent close enough to one sack per every 20 attempts.

Only two of Smith’s sacks came when he lined up with his hand on the ground, once against the Detroit Lions and once against the New York Jets. Despite always lining up in a linebacker stance, Smith never fell deeper than the defensive line on defense. Thirteen of his sacks came when he lined up in a right defensive end position, eight more came from the left defensive end position while just one came from the interior in a right defensive tackle position.

Just once was Smith double-teamed, while he didn’t have to beat anyone for seven of his sacks. Seventeen of his sacks came when the 49ers were playing with a lead, twelve of those were double-digit leads and seven of those came with at least a 20 point lead. Only once all season did Smith sack a quarterback when that quarterback was playing with a lead. Most of his sacks came in the fourth quarter, 10 in total, with one more coming in overtime and just two coming in the third quarters of games.His final six sacks came in the second quarter. Smith’s first three sacks of the season saw him sack the quarterabck outside the pocket, but he only did that twice more after that point.

Because he lined up as an edge-rusher on all but one of his sacks, he primarily beat offensive tackles instead of interior offensive linemen. He beat the left tackle eight times, three times past his inside shoulder and five times past his outside shoulder. Against the right tackle, he penetrated the pocket nine times, seven times getting inside him and twice beating him outside. That leaves just right guard, a position he beat once inside, and left guard, who he beat four times, three times inside and once outside.

There is no real theme to when Smith sacked the quarterback in terms of down and distance, as he got to the quarterback seven times each on first and second down and eight times on third down.

 Method Analysis

Let’s not mess around with this and get straight to the answer that everyone wants to know. The perception of Aldon Smith is that he benefits from the presence of Justin Smith and without Justin he wouldn’t be as productive as he is. That is possibly true, but we must debunk the notion that he only gets sacks because of those stunts that he runs with Justin.

Here is an example of a stunt, one that worked perfectly for the 49ers this past season.

Screen shot 2013-06-18 at 21.24.03

Both Smiths are lined up to the right of the center, without any other defenders in the immediate vicinity. Aldon is standing up some distance outside of the offensive tackle before the snap. Smith is lined up so his head is directly in between the offensive tackle and guard.

Screen shot 2013-06-18 at 21.24.31

At the snap, Smith takes one short step towards the left tackle’s outside shoulder before turning inside and running almost perpendicular to the sideline. At the same time, Smith hitting the chest of the left tackle, but angling himself towards the left tackle who is following Smith infield.

Screen shot 2013-06-18 at 21.26.13
As Aldon comes behind Justin, the responsibility for blocking him is passed on from the left tackle to the left guard. However, because of Justin’s power, reputation and sheer size, the Rams’ left guard is late to react to Aldon coming inside as he battles with Justin. At this point, Justin isn’t looking to rush the passer. He angled outside initially so that he would be in the perfect position to block off the left tackle coming inside while still occupying the left guard enough for him to fully focus on him.

Screen shot 2013-06-18 at 21.27.01

Justin and Aldon run this play perfectly, which ultimately leads to a very easy sack for Aldon after he runs through a gaping hole in the middle of the offensive line.

Both of Aldon’s sacks that day came with this play, which is no surprise because on both occasions they ran it perfectly. However, it may surprise you how many times this play created a free lane for Aldon to rush at the quarterback.

Excluding the first game against the Rams, Smith never benefited from this play in such a way again. In fact, only four times did Smith run any form of stunt before getting a sack. Against the New Orleans Saints, the 49ers ran exactly the same type of stunt shown above, but Saints’ center Brian De La Puenta picked up Aldon when he came inside. De La Puenta tried to knock Smith off course with his size by meeting him hard in the hole, but Smith brushed him off before shedding his block attempt and getting to Brees for the sack.

The only other time the duo ran a stunt that led to a sack for Aldon was against the Chicago Bears. However, on this occasion Aldon went underneath Justin and used his power to push Chilo Rachal back into Jason Campbell before taking down the quarterback.

Aldon did benefit from Justin’s presence, but the impact of their stunt is largely overblown when it comes to Aldon’s sack total. Aldon had 22 sacks last season, only four came on stunts and only two were what could be classified as plays he didn’t have to work hard to make.

This chart represents what moves Smith used to beat which players and how often he used them.

Timestamp

Beaten Offensive Linemen

Speed Rush

Bull Rush

Speed to set up Bull Rush

Other Specific Move

GB, Q1 12:04

None

No

No

No

No

DET, Q4 10:45

None

No

No

No

No

DET, Q4 03:04

None

No

No

No

No

NYJ, Q1 09:24

Austin Howard

No

Yes

No

Rip

NYJ, Q2 01:22

None

No

No

No

No

NYJ, Q4 08:20

D’Brickashaw Ferguson

No

No

No

Swim

SEA, Q4 01:31

Breno Giacomini

No

No

No

No

ARI, Q4 13:40

D’Anthony Batiste

No

No

Yes

Swim

ARI, Q4 08:59

D’Anthony Batiste, Anthony Sherman

Yes

Yes

No

No

STL, Q2 00:33

None

No

No

No

No

STL, OT 00:24

None

No

No

No

No

CHI, Q1 09:15

J’Marcus Webb

No

Yes

No

No

CHI, Q2 12:34

J’Marcus Webb

No

Yes

No

No

CHI, Q2 02:34

Chilo Rachal

No

Yes

No

No

CHI, Q3 13:53

Gabe Carimi

No

No

No

Swim

CHI, Q4 10:23

Gabe Carimi

No

Yes

No

No

CHI, Q4 09:38

Gabe Carimi, Lance Louis

No

No

No

Swim, Shed

NO, Q3 02:55

None

No

No

No

No

NO, Q4 07:46

Brian De La Puenta

No

No

No

Shed

STL, Q2 03:46

Barry Richardson

No

Yes

No

No

MIA, Q2 15:00

Jonathan Martin

No

Yes

No

No

MIA, Q4 01:59

Richie Incognito

No

No

No

Swim

Totals:

17

1

8

1

8 

Incredibly, Smith was able to get seven sacks without beating any blocks at all. That doesn’t mean that he didn’t make good plays to get those sacks however.

His first sack of the year saw him react very well to a hard-play-action to the opposite side of the field before using his outstanding athleticism and impressive tackling technique to take Aaron Rodgers down before he could escape to the sideline. Matthew Stafford’s pocket-presence gifted Smith two sacks against the Detroit Lions. Once he ran to Smith’s side of the field as the pocket collapsed around him and on another occasion he escaped upfield in such a manner that Pro Football Focus didn’t even register it as a sack(the NFL officially did though).

Coming from the right side against the New York Jets, D’Brickashaw Ferguson was able to stop Smith in his tracks before establishing his base to keep his body between the rusher and his quarterback, but Sanchez was forced out of the pocket to a point that he Smith was in between the left tackle and quarterback and had an easy run for the sack. In fact, before Smith brought Sanchez down, the young quarterback shed a tackle attempt from Ahmad Brooks. To round off his free sacks throw in the two stunts from the Rams’ game before adding another play from the Saints’ game when two offensive linemen took each other out to give Smith a free run at Drew Brees.

Smith’s sack numbers were unusually bloated by such random plays born out of luck rather than skill. That is not normally sustainable for a career and it probably explains the fact that he went nine games without a sack last season. That doesn’t mean that he can’t still turn into the next Demarcus Ware or James Harrison coming off the edge, but his production is some distance ahead of his development.

Only once did Smith use his speed to get past an offensive tackle, D’Anthony Batiste of the Arizona Cardinals. Batiste shouldn’t be a starting left tackle in the league and it showed on that play. It’s not Smith’s speed that will allow him to be an elite pass-rusher in this league, if he is to become one, it will be his power and size.

When he played with great intensity, Smith’s bull rush was overwhelming. He repeatedly punished less physically gifted blockers and completely obliterated Jonathan Martin for his final sack of the season. If that power is harnessed and continually used in the right ways, it will be nearly impossible for offensive linemen to hold him off their quarterbacks.

Screen shot 2013-06-18 at 22.24.01

Like any elite player, an elite pass-rusher can’t be one-dimensional. To go along with his sheer power, Smith has the reach and strength in his arms to become dominant with different moves if he can refine his technique. He was successful with a handful of swim techniques and one rip during the season, but he never looked as tidy or quick with his technique as JJ Watt was.

He was still able to make up for those limitations because of his overwhelming physical gifts, but if he is to reach his full potential, he will need to develop his timing and body control to enhance his speed and strength.

It’s hard to say that Smith beat any of the better offensive linemen in the NFL. He moved around the field so he did face fullbacks, tight ends, tackles, guards and centers, but a 5.5 sack game against the Chicago Bears and multiple sack games against the Rams, Dolphins, Cardinals, Jets and Detroit Lions account for most of his production.

Name

Snaps

Sacks Allowed

PFF Grade*

Austin Howard

591

10

-5.1

D’Brickashaw Ferguson

591

2

16.9

Breno Giacomini

597

5

.2

D’Anthony Batiste

425

12

-29.8

Anthony Sherman

53

1

-.7

J’Marcus Webb

595

7

1.4

Chilo Rachal

289

2

-1.0

Gabe Carimi

521

7

-17.4

Lance Louis

392

2

5.7

Brian De La Puenta

728

2

5.6

Barry Richardson

630

7

.3

Jonathan Martin

588

6

-17.5

Richie Incognito

585

4

6.0

Total

6,585

67

-29.4

Average

506.54

5.15

-2.26

*PFF Grade is for pass blocking only
All Statistics courtesy of PFF

There is value in a pass-rusher who can beat up on bad offensive linemen effectively, because you can always move defensive players around to target offensive weaknesses, but obviously it’s a worrying sign that Smith struggled for so many stretches and didn’t beat any truly elite offensive linemen. D’Brickashaw Ferguson was his toughest matchup and even he wouldn’t be a highly sought-after commodity in today’s NFL.

Individual Play Analysis

Smith’s first sack of the season came outside of the pocket and he wasn’t required to bet a blocker, however, it was still very impressive. It showed off his comfort on the field and his outstanding physical traits.

Screen shot 2013-06-18 at 23.06.33

Smith is lined up outside the left tackle in the stance of a linebacker. The Packers have come with one tight end to the top of the screen, one receiver outside of him and two receivers to the bottom of the screen.  This is a balanced set, but it’s no surprise that they look to run over right tackle.

Screen shot 2013-06-18 at 23.06.58
By the design of the offensive play-call, Smith is unaccounted for. His defensive responsibility requires him to account for any cutbacks if this is a running-play while still looking to contain Aaron Rodgers on a bootleg. Up until this point in the play, Smith is reading run completely and is moving down the line of scrimmage accordingly.

Screen shot 2013-06-18 at 23.07.09

This is the decisive moment in the play as Smith’s eyes are in the backfield, but Rodgers is trying to execute the fake perfectly so that he cannot see who takes the ball. Whether because of something he sees or he just guesses right on this occasion, Smith is able to follow the football with Rodgers.

Screen shot 2013-06-18 at 23.07.19

Making the wrong decision in this scenario isn’t the worst thing you can do. Instead the worst thing you can do is hesitate to the point that you are completely out of either play. Smith doesn’t hesitate, he immediately plants his foot and starts closing the space between he and Rodgers from the moment he turns into the flat. Rodgers never really gets a chance to survey the field because Smith goes directly at him. For most linebackers, Rodgers is a difficult tackle in the open field, he is very quick and most linebackers would look to re-establish their base before trying to grab him.

Smith doesn’t do that. He attacks Rodgers with the assurance of a safety in the open field, trusts his speed and tackling technique to pull him down. Had Smith hesitated, he wouldn’t have closed the space off quick enough to take away Rodgers’ opportunity to survey the field and if he had hesitated before the tackle, Rodgers would have had a chance to fake back inside and go outside.

Instead, Smith suffocated his space, rushed his decision and closed off the angle to play this situation perfectly.

There isn’t really a specific aspect of Smith’s game that stood out when watching his sacks. He appears to have the physical traits to do almost everything in the game, but he still has traits of being a raw athlete. If he can refine these traits he should have a long, successful career, but even if he just finds one niche that he can create, then he could become dominant regardless of other limitations.

Much like JJ Watt, Smith appears best set to dominate blockers with a devilish swim move. We’ve already spoke about his athleticism, power and length, but none of that is any use to him if he can’t completely control his body. There was an excellent example of how he gets a little flustered at times moving towards the quarterback.

Screen shot 2013-06-19 at 00.05.55

Here Smith is lined up as the left outside linebacker, but is essentially playing as a defensive end with no other defensive linemen close to him. There is a tight end and a running-back to his side of the field, but the way the play develops will see him in a one-on-one battle with Bears’ right tackle Gabe Carimi.

Screen shot 2013-06-19 at 00.06.09

Smith comes from his wide position and stops just infront of Carimi as they are set to engage. Smith very quickly enters his swim move and is able to knock Carimi completely out of the play, however, he has thrown too much of his weight behind the swim move, instead of just using his arms, which has caused him to fall forward. Smith is still able to make the sack because he is exceptionally quick and can maintain his balance with his athleticism.

However, Smith was able to make the play on this occasion because he got past Carimi early and Carimi could never catch up to him. That’s not to say another tackle wouldn’t have handled the situation better. A more technical tackle would have been better set up for the swim move, while one with a better base strength wouldn’t have been knocked so far forward. The difference may have just been inches, but inches would have been enough for the offensive tackle to fall on top of Smith while he had his hand on the ground.

Instead he turns an imperfect swim move into a sack with his sheer athletic gifts.

Verdict

Smith’s production during the 2012 Regular Season could begin to work against him over the coming seasons. He was drafted as a player with massive potential who was going to need time to develop. He developed his all-around game enough from years one to two for him to become an every-down starter, but if he is to consistently produce as a pass-rusher and beat better offensive linemen, he will need to develop as a pass-rusher.

Having all the physical tools is a great blessing, but it’s not enough. Soon Justin Smith will be retired and the 49ers’ defense as a whole will need to rely more on him, when that day comes, he will need to be a better pass rusher than he currently projects as. For a player with elite talent and production last year, he rarely was double teamed for his sacks, maybe he was double-teamed during the nine games when he didn’t get to the quarterabck, but that seems unlikely considering Justin Smith is inside him.

Even if he was double teamed and that was the reason for his inconsistency from game-to-game, that is what his future holds and that is what he needs to be overcoming on a regular basis to be an elite player in this league. Smith wasn’t drafted to be a Sam Acho or Michael Johnson, he’s not supposed to be the second option, he has to be the primary pass-rusher. Or should I say, he needs to become the primary pass-rusher, because he certainly doesn’t seem like one just yet.

17 thoughts on “Aldon Smith: Stunts, Size and Sacks By Proxy

  1. Pingback: Film Room: Aldon Smith's Pass Rush | Pro Football Hot Reads

  2. Pingback: Around the NFC West: 'Salty' from defeat? | SPORTS RSS NEWSSPORTS RSS NEWS

  3. Wow, that was an extremely technical article. Confirmed a lot of what I had believed about Aldon Smith throughout the entire 2012 season and the playoff run. Supremely gifted athlete, technically raw, but physically blessed with great speed, size, and strength. Thank you for an almost game-by-game, sack-by-sack, play-by-play, moment-by-moment breakdown of different situations. I’ll be sharing this with as many people as I can.

  4. It should be pointed out that the last part of the season Aldon Smith was playing with a torn Labrum that had to be surgically repaired in the off season. Anyone that has suffered from a torn labrum would find it hard to believe you could play through that injury but that was what he did. I believe that it had a greater effect on the absence of sacks than did the coinciding injury to Justin Smith.

  5. “When he played with great intensity, Smith’s bull rush was overwhelming. He repeatedly punished less physically gifted blockers and completely obliterated Jake Long for his final sack of the season”

    Aldon Smith’s sack against the Dolphins came against rookie Jonathan Martin. Long was placed on injured reserve a few days prior to the December 9th game against San Francisco.

  6. Pingback: Coffee & Cigarettes: Seahawks links for Thursday - iSports News

  7. Pingback: Coffee & Cigarettes: Seahawks links for Thursday - Recent Sports News - Recent Sports News

  8. Pingback: Chris Clemons: Sacks, Free Agent Additions and the Seattle Seahawks’ Inconvenient Truth | Pre Snap Reads

  9. Pingback: Bruce Irvin: Versatility, Development and Expanding a Role With the Seattle Seahawks | Pre Snap Reads

  10. Pingback: Golden Nuggets: What to expect from Eric Reid - Live Sports News

  11. Pingback: Golden Nuggets: What to expect from Eric Reid - iSports News

  12. Pingback: Golden Nuggets: What to expect from Eric Reid - Todays Top Sports . com

  13. Pingback: Golden Nuggets: What to expect from Eric Reid - Sports News Live

  14. Pingback: Golden Nuggets: What to expect from Eric Reid - SportsXYZ – Sports news!

  15. Thanks for pointing that out. Everyone started questioning Aldon’s abilities and nobody in the sports media seems to mention that fact. Playing the final 6 games with a labrum injury and still getting some pressures is a pretty admirable feat.

  16. Pingback: The Pittsburgh Steelers Need for a Big, Red Zone Receiver is a Myth | Pre Snap Reads

Leave a Reply