It seems everyone is putting an asterisk next to the 49ers’ Super Bowl hopes lately. The list of evidence pointing to this team being the strongest in the NFC is quite long, from its fearsome defense and suddenly explosive offense to its stellar coaching staff.
But one issue remains the tipping point for the 49ers’ postseason hopes like a splintered leg on this argument’s table, ready to give way and send the red and gold centerpiece crashing to the floor: Justin Smith.
Ever since the second half of the New England game, when Smith left with his partially torn triceps, the 49ers’ defense seems to have been giving away scores like Tootsie Rolls from a smashed piñata. Ricky Jean-Francois has filled in quite admirably, especially when it comes to stopping the run. Against the Cardinals, Jean-Francois had a 15.4 run stopping percentage according Pro Football Focus and he added his second sack of the season. But let’s be honest: the Cardinals are not the Packers, and Jean-Francois is not Justin Smith.
One of the biggest concerns surrounding Smith’s injury is the sudden disappearance of Aldon Smith’s previously dominant pass rush skills. Aldon was just three sacks away from tying Michael Strahan’s single-season record coming into the Patriots game, and while he got a significant amount of pressure on Tom Brady in the first half, all of his push disappeared when Justin Smith left for the locker room in the opening of the third quarter. Many have wondered whether Aldon’s drop off is the result of Justin’s absence or if it has more to do with the fact that he has played 409 more snaps than he did last season. The answer may not come on Saturday, because even if Justin plays, the Smith brothers won’t always be side-by-side.
Here’s a look at the 49ers lined up against the Packers in Week 1. On the left is Justin Smith in a two point stance. Lurking in the middle is Ahmad Brooks and Ray McDonald, with NaVorro Bowman to the right. All the way at the other end is Aldon Smith.
This is an interesting twist for a couple different reasons. First, Brooks is lined up as a middle linebacker — something I noticed when breaking down the 49ers’ victory over the Saints but hadn’t seen them do before. More importantly though, while Justin and Aldon are usually lined up side-by-side, they are separated on this play. This isn’t the first time Vic Fangio has moved Aldon Smith to the left side of the defense — he did it quite a bit against the Bears, but Aldon had a significant advantage against third string right tackle Gabe Carimi when playing Chicago. This move was made for a much different reason.
The All-22 angle reveals how the 49ers are defending the Packers’ pass-happy offense. The triangles represent two deep safeties while the circles represent four cornerbacks. The squares are the linebackers, with Bowman covering Jermichael Finley and Brooks staying home to spy Aaron Rodgers. That leaves three down linemen coming after the quarterback.
If this looks familiar, it’s because this is the kind of defense teams run against two-minute drills all the time. The Packers will probably run a lot of four- and even five-wide receiver sets against the 49ers, and this is one of the ways the 49ers will counter that. With so many defenders dropping into coverage, this is the 49ers’ way of utilizing it’s best three pass rushers while still maximizing their coverage and accounting for Rodgers’ ability to scramble.
Variations in this defense exist, but the front will remain the same. If the 49ers can only line up three pass rushers, Aldon and Justin cannot be on the same side. San Francisco put the Smiths opposite one another over a dozen times against the Packers in Week 1, and Aldon got considerable pressure from that side. We may see Aldon and Justin separated again this Saturday, not by injury but by design.