Under Pressure: Scouting Aldon Smith
by J.J. Cooper
It’s playoff time, so this week’s Under Pressure is a little different. Rather than looking at sacks around the league, this week we’re looking at one matchup: Aldon Smith against the left side of the Packers’ offensive line.
The first time the Packers and 49ers played, Smith had one sack, but he wasn’t an overriding factor in the game. His sack came on a naked bootleg where the Packers left him unblocked; don’t expect them to try to do that very often this weekend.
In watching every sack the Packers have given up this year, as well as every sack that the 49ers have picked up, a very simple theme emerged for left tackle Marshall Newhouse and left guard T.J. Lang: don’t give Smith a chance to work back to the inside.
Smith's 33.5 sacks in his first two years topped Reggie White’s record of 31. Because of Smith’s speed, offensive tackles have worried about being beaten to the outside by Smith’s quick first step. To try to combat it, teams have tried to help out with a back or tight end to chip or otherwise slow down Smith.
But keeping a tight end in to help on Smith is like giving a hammer to someone trying to unscrew a panel -- it’s not really the right tool for the job. For all his speed, Smith is not really much of a threat to get sacks with a speed rush to the outside. It’s actually the weakest part of his pass-rushing game.
Of Smith’s 33.5 sacks in his first two seasons, only four of those have came by quickly beating an offensive tackle to the outside. One of those four came against Saints fourth-string tackle Will Robinson. Another came when he was facing overmatched swing guard Paul McQuistan playing over his head at left tackle. The other two came in one game against Jeff Backus early in the 2011 season. In comparison, Broncos linebacker Von Miller picked up eight sacks by speed rushing this season.
When Smith tries to simply blow past a tackle with speed, he’s doing it to set up his best pass-rushing moves. When a tackle worries about his speed, Smith is dominant when he either bull rushes or loops to the inside (often with the help of defensive end Justin Smith looping to the outside in a line twist). When he does that, he’s the most productive pass rusher in the game.
|Aldon Smith's Sacks||Sack Count|
|QB Holds Ball||8|
|Clean Up Sack||1|
After plenty of film study, the Packers should know this. That doesn’t mean Newhouse doesn’t need to be focused on the technique of his kick step when Smith does rush to the outside, but more than anything, he has to remember to keep his weight over his feet and stay anchored. What Smith does better than any other pass rusher is use his excellent burst to find tackles either overcommitting to the outside or catch them off-balance to the point where he can bull rush them back into the quarterback.
That has been a problem for Newhouse at times this season. Check out this sack by speedy Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons. Because Newhouse was worried about Clemons’ speed, he wasn’t properly prepared when Clemons cut back to the inside.
This is where Lang can help Newhouse. Without someone to block on this play, Lang helped out center Jeff Saturday. This weekend, in the rare case that Lang is left uncovered, he will be much more helpful if he's prepared to help if Smith cuts back to the inside. On this play, because he wasn’t helping out, Clemons had an easy path to the quarterback once he beat Newhouse.
The 49ers can do the exact same thing if the Packers aren’t careful. They’ve already done it earlier this year, as this play against the Cardinals shows.
Admittedly, D'Anthony Batiste was one of the worst starting tackles in the league, but this play shows how putting a tight end out to help out on Smith doesn’t really do anything but take a receiver out of the pattern. Tight ends can help chip on rushers coming around the edge, but in this case, all tight end Jeff King would have done if he had tried to help out is get tangled up in Batiste’s feet. It’s the guard who can help shut off Smith’s path to the quarterback, if he’s left uncovered.
If Justin Smith is healthy enough to play, and all signs seem to indicate he will be back after a torn tricep injury, Lang and Newhouse face the added complication of communicating to understand when to switch off and when to stick with their initial man on two-man line twists. It’s not easy, because Justin Smith isn’t easy to handoff. This sack against the Rams is a perfect illustration of that. Pre-snap, Justin Smith is lined up in a three-technique where he pressures both the guard and the tackle. But with Aldon Smith lined up well outside of the left tackle, the pre-snap assignments seem pretty simple -- the guard handles Justin Smith while the tackle takes on Aldon Smith.
But Justin Smith doesn’t make it easy. At the snap, he fires off at the guard enough to make him engage him, then immediately starts to loop to the outside to engage the tackle. But as he does so, he’s also used his left arm to keep the guard from disengaging. If he was seen tugging the jersey away from the guard’s body, this might be called defensive holding (although it’s unlikely to be seen), but in this case by reaching his arm around the guard to the back of his shoulder pads, it looks more like a simple arm over move.
What’s frightening about this is that while it’s obvious what the 49ers are doing, it doesn’t make it any easier to defend. I couldn’t think of a good way to handle it at all, so I asked our offensive line savant Ben Muth if he had any ideas. He pointed out that the Packers could try sliding the protection that way, which would give the center a chance to pick up the looping Aldon Smith, but even that was going to be tough. Plus, if a team gets too predictable about sliding the protection, it opens them up to overload blitzes from the other side. Justin Smith is simply very good at eating up blockers, Lang and Newhouse will have to do a good job of getting free.
Stopping The Smith's stunts will be Newhouse and Lang’s toughest job on Saturday night. It may be the toughest job any Packers player will face Saturday night. But it will help determine who goes on to the NFC Championship game.