Sack drought confounds, motivates Aldon Smith
NEW ORLEANS -- Aldon Smith sat at his assigned "riser" in the Marriott ballroom on Thursday morning, reporters leaning in. A petite woman from "Japanese TV" asked the 49ers rush end if he had anything to say to the NFL fans in her country who would be getting up in the middle of the night to watch the Super Bowl. (Thank you, he said.)
One man asked, in all seriousness, if there was one song in particular Smith was hoping to hear from Beyonce at halftime. (Not really).
Smith, a second-year outside linebacker who finished the season with 19 ½ sacks and was elected team MVP by his teammates, answered all questions politely and patiently. But he warmed to one line of inquiry in particular:
When you had five-and-a-half sacks against the Bears on Monday Night Football last November, asked one TV guy, what was going through your mind? Do you get into a rhythm?
"Everything I was doing was working, everything was going right," Smith recalled. "It felt good.
"You know when you're beating the guy in front of you," he went on, "and he knows when you're beating him. I was getting in a rhythm, getting in a zone. If you watch the film, I think I got like six-and-a-half," he said, flashing a megawatt smile, "but I'll take five-and-a-half."
If a trace of wistfulness crept into Smith's voice, who could blame him? Those were the good old days, before the drought, before his cohort Justin Smith tore his triceps, before this deluge of questions.
An apocalypse has been averted (according to the Mayan calendar) and a president has been inaugurated since Smith last sacked a quarterback. It will have been 56 days, come Super Sunday -- three regular season games and two playoff contests -- since he deposited Miami's Ryan Tannehill on his backside not once but twice on Dec. 9.
Since then, nada. "He's been productive," said 49ers safety Donte Whitner. "There were a couple times he almost had [Falcons quarterback] Matt Ryan down. Hopefully, he comes out Sunday and gets two or three. That would really help us."
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has been doing a a fair impression of Daryl (the Mad Bomber) Lamonica this postseason, completing multiple deep passes over the heads of opposing defensive backs to wide outs Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin. If the Niners can't get heat on Flacco, they'll be in trouble.
There's no mystery behind Smith's dry spell. The 6-foot-4, 258-poound outside linebacker has been getting dramatically more attention in the second half of the season, with teams "double- and triple-teaming" him, he said. While he engages the tackle, "I've got the guard coming over to hit me on the hip, the running back chipping [me], the tight end staying in to help out."
Quarterbacks, who tend to be intelligent, are getting rid of the ball more quickly. But the biggest factor behind The Drought, the primary reason Michael Strahan's single-season sack record (21.5) survived, was an injury to Aldon's sidekick. A week after that Dolphins game, the Niners lost the other half of their ironically nicknamed "Smith Brothers." Justin Smith, a 12-year veteran who is perhaps the premier 3-4 defensive tackle in the NFL, tore his left triceps against the Patriots on Dec. 16. A week later, with Justin out, the Niners scraped the low point of their season, a 42-13 beatdown by the Seahawks in Seattle.
Playing in a cumbersome, wrist-to-shoulder brace he has grown to loathe, Smith returned for the postseason. With nine tackles against the Packers and Falcons, he's holding his own and then some. But he's not last year's All-Pro. There's a direct correlation between Justin's ability to occupy (and, occasionally, artfully grab) blockers, and Aldon's ability to go knifing through the resulting rush lanes, even if the 49ers don't care to admit it.
"I don't see that," said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, asked if Aldon's sackless spell was connected to Justin's injury. "First off, in most of these games where Aldon hasn't gotten any sacks, he's rushing well. Just hasn't happened." He pointed to "three or four really great rushes where he beat his guy and hit the quarterback" in the NFC title game, "but the ball was gone."
"Of course, I'm frustrated," says Aldon of getting stuck on 19.5. "I was on a pace to get a lot of sacks." At the same time, he says, "I wasn't frustrated because we were winning."
Standing in Aldon's way Sunday will not be Michael Oher, the protagonist of the book and movie "The Blind Side," as he is no longer protecting Flacco's blind side. Oher has been flipped to right tackle, as the result of Bryant McKinnie's late-season renaissance. After taking a $1 million pay cut at the start of September (from $3.2 million to $2.2 million), then languishing in John Harbaugh's disfavor for 16 games, McKinnie finally convinced the head man that he could be trusted. Plugged in at left tackle, he's had a superb postseason, though his toughest test awaits.
"Aldon's got those long arms, and such great speed," said McKinnie. "And Justin is a force in there. He's very strong, able to push guys back and just create a lot of disturbance in the offensive line. They run a lot of games in there."
By "games," he means twists or stunts designed to befuddle guards and tackles. Justin, for instance, will attack the left tackle's inside shoulder, while Aldon loops behind, building a head of steam, then attacking the guard, who sometimes finds himself surreptitiously slowed by the clutching left hand of ... Justin Smith.
Rams coach Jeff Fisher refers to that time-honored tactic as the "grab game."
"There's a number of stunts that they use," Fisher told 49ers beat writers on a December conference call, "but the one that's most effective is the 'grab game.' It's been in the game forever.
"I'm not complaining. Everybody does it, and Justin does a great job of it. As long as his feet are moving toward the quarterback, it won't get called."
Smith's injured triceps, significantly, is in his left, "grabbing" arm. The tendon, he told reporters this week, is "50 to 60 percent" torn, and will require offseason surgery. Asked if it hurt to play with a torn tendon, the player known as "Cowboy" replied, "There's ways around that."
The question, can Aldon Smith find ways around Bryant McKinnie?
All week, he discussed The Drought with grace, good humor and a sense of perspective. "I'm making plays, creating pressures," he reminded his inquisitors. "Just because I didn't get the sack doesn't mean the quarterback [gets a free pass]. He might still throw a bad ball, might throw an interception."
It's not the end of the world, in other words.