One of the things I noticed watching the 49ers game against the Patriots was that Aldon Smith was not his normal disruptive self in creating havoc in the opponent’s passing game. This was the first game since the matchup against the Giants that he was held without a sack and outside an interception his name was not called very often in the broadcast.
According to Pro Football Focus he still managed to have a positive contribution overall but all of that came from his run defense and pass coverage and not his normal pass rush.
To dig a little bit deeper into what happened I went back and re-watched the game, focusing on what Smith did and how the Patriots set out to neutralize him.
By my count he made an attempt to rush the passer on 53 of the 69 times that Tom Brady dropped back to pass. Overall he accounted for six pressures and very nearly had two sacks, but Brady was just quick enough to be able throw away the ball on each of those. Overall he was able to get a pressure on over 11% of his rushes, which is a pretty good clip.
So why did it seem like he had such a quiet game?
Well, it’s because four of the six pressures came on Brady’s first five drop-backs. After the first half of the first quarter he had just two pressures on 48 attempts which comes out to a pressure rate of 4%, which is not very good.
So what changed?
First, the biggest change was that Brady reset his internal clock and started getting rid of the ball much quicker. After the second series the ball was out of Brady’s hand before the 49ers pass rush could develop. Second, when Justin Smith left the game it allowed the Patriots to shift an extra lineman to help left tackle Nate Solder.
Looking at the breakdown of pass rushes with Justin Smith in the game and those without confirm this. In the 25 pass rushes before Justin Smith left with an injury the Patriots double-teamed Aldon Smith just four times, or 16% of the time. After Justin Smith left the game with an injury the Patriots double teamed Aldon Smith 10 times in 28 pass rush attempts, or 36% of the time.
Breaking things down a little further, five of Aldon’s six pressures came with Justin on the field; without “The Cowboy” Aldon produced just one pressure in those 28 attempts. If it wasn’t clear before that Justin Smith’s ability to occupy multiple linemen helps out Aldon Smith, this game should act as a spotlight to this fact now.
The good news is it looks like Justin Smith will be able to play after participating in practices today. This should be good news for the 49ers’ pass rush and their chances of pulling out a victory in Seattle.