Marquee Matchups – Aldon Smith Lights Up Monday Night
Marquee Matchups – Aldon Smith Lights Up Monday Night
Nationally televised games offer players a chance to raise their profile with a big performance in front of the entire football nation. Situational players and those from off-the-radar teams have the chance to grab the limelight and give their name a much needed boost.
This Monday night, in a statement game for the San Francisco 49ers, their first-round pick Aldon Smith did just that, exhibiting in one game what he has been doing all season for the 49ers as a situational pass rusher. As with other rookies converting to a 3-4 defense, Smith’s rookie season has been limited to playing in nickel defenses as a pass rusher. This has allowed the 49ers to make excellent use of his phenomenal pass-rushing talents without putting excess pressure on him to learn an entire defensive playbook in order to contribute in all facets of the base defense.
This may take some shine off of his season, particularly with Von Miller excelling as an every-down defender in Denver, but he showed on Monday night that even as a sub-package player, he can have a tremendous impact. Smith put on a clinic for the 49ers on ESPN’s marquee weekly broadcast exposing a Pittsburgh offensive line that could no longer rest on a mobile quarterback able to dodge and escape the pressure they concede. Ben Roethlisberger was left immobilized by his ankle injury this week and Smith capitalized with and chipped in mightily to the 49ers’ win.
Here we take a play-by-play look at Smith’s pressures, from which you should notice a common theme emerging; one that reflects well on Smith and poorly on the Steelers’ offensive line and their coaching staff.
Q2 – 8:24
Smith waited until midway through the second quarter to start his big showing and set the tone for the night on this play. Lined up at the right defensive spot in a four-man nickel pass rush, he stunts inside of star 49er defensive lineman Justin Smith and is able to get pressure between C Doug Legursky and LG Trai Essex. LT Max Starks quickly spots the stunt and moves to take over the block of Justin Smith. Essex doesn’t peel off quite so quickly and Aldon, in combination with DLE Ahmad Brooks, flushes Roethlisberger who just gets out of the pocket before throwing the ball away to the left sideline.
Q2 – 8:19
Smith doesn’t wait so long for the next piece of pressure as he picks up a sack on the ensuing play. Unfortunately for him, the play was nullified by an illegal contact penalty. Smith rushes from a two-point stance and drives back LT Max Starks to Roethlisberger before shedding the block and taking down the quarterback who was unable to escape. The penalty cost the 49ers what Smith had set up to be 3rd-and-35.
Q2 – 0:36
With the Steelers looking to drive to halve the 49ers’ lead before half time, Smith comes up with pressure on consecutive snaps to help turn away that threat. The first of those comes on a hit with Smith rushing from a two-point stance outside of LT Max Starks. As became a theme for the night, he stunted to the inside and, though the stunt was picked up on this occasion, Legursky couldn’t handle Smith. The rookie easily swum off of Legursky’s left shoulder to get up the middle of the pocket and lay a hit on Roethlisberger, forcing a dump-off to the middle of the field which ran off another 25 seconds of game clock. Justin Smith took the attention of two Steeler offensive linemen leaving Smith with the favorable one-on-one matchup which he capitalized on.
Q2 – 0:11
After the Steelers chose to run a substitution following the previous play, Smith again forced a dump-off from Roethlisberger, preventing him from going downfield to his dangerous receivers. The pressure wasn’t quick, but Smith still got around Starks even with a chip from Mewelde Moore. The dump-off went to Moore who was run out of bounds for a loss, keeping the Steelers out of field goal range.
Q3 – 1:09
Smith’s pressure came in bunches this week and after another long lull through much of the third quarter, he again registered pressure on back-to-back snaps at the end of the third. This play was almost a carbon copy of his hit at the 00:36 mark of the second quarter. Again he is in a two-point stance in a defensive end spot. Again he stunts inside of Justin Smith who draws two Steelers offensive linemen. Again Smith has a favorable one-on-one matchup with Legursky. And again Smith registers a hit, this time with the play resulting in an incompletion as Larry Grant broke up the pass. Same ingredients, same results, the first sign that the Steelers aren’t learning from the pressure they are leaking to Roethlisberger.
Q3 – 1:04
As with his plays at the end of the second quarter, he follows his cross pass rush move with Justin Smith by taking a standard outside pass rush against Starks. Starks does a solid job on the play, forcing Smith to take the long way around and appears to have the play in hand until Smith gets away with a hand to the Steeler lineman’s face which appears to halt his progress. Smith doesn’t stop when he is forced to the back of the pocket and continues to work back in, pressuring Roethlisberger and forcing another errant throw. Smith exhibiting on this play his relentless motor and the exuberance of youth to get something from a play that might have looked like a win for the offensive lineman early on.
Q4 – 11:39
Into the fourth quarter and once the 49ers have established a two-score lead, Smith pins his ears back. On this play, he registers arguably his most important effort of the night. Once again Smith shows his pure strength and physicality–not only against Max Starks, whom he beats for the sack, but also Roethlisberger. Smith rushes from a two-point stance, driving Starks back before throwing the left tackle aside with consummate ease to get to the QB. At his best, Roethlisberger is a handful to sack, but clearly slowed by injury, Smith dominates him in this tackle and Roethlisberger cannot tuck the ball away–he loses control with the attention of Ray McDonald and Justin Smith. Off of this play, the 49ers scored the touchdown that ultimately put the game away; all set up by Smith’s relentless physicality.
Q4 – 9:00
On a rare occasion of Smith rushing from the left side of the defense, he once again pulls out the simple cross move, this time with Ray McDonald. Once again Smith takes advantage of the ability of one of his fellow defensive linemen to get up the field. Smith’s speed on the stunt sees him easily inside of RT Marcus Gilbert but there is no one free to pick Smith up. McDonald has taken the attention of Legursky and RG Ramon Foster. This allows Smith to barrel through the A-gap and take down Roethlisberger for a hit and only a good low catch by Jericho Cotchery allows the Steelers to pick up yardage on the play. Once again Smith takes advantage of the upfield ability of the 49ers’ talented ends.
Q4 – 8:28
Smith’s second sack comes once again (surprise, surprise), from and inside stunt utilizing the pass rush of Justin Smith. Aldon’s speed and cut allows him a path to Roethlisberger for the sack and he finishes the play well. This play, more than any other in this game, illustrates how well Smith works with and off of the 49ers’ other defensive linemen. Ray McDonald’s alignment is such that Legursky at C will not be in a position to help with any inside moves from the left side of the line. This means that with the stunt called the only men between Aldon Smith and Ben Roethlisberger are LG Trai Essex and HB Isaac Redman, aligned to the left of the QB. Justin Smith makes this play by driving at Essex and grabbing him as he bull rushes, getting away with a sneaky defensive hold. This leaves Aldon Smith barreling inside one-on-one with the running back Redman, a worse mismatch than that with Legursky that has proved so fruitful for the 49ers in this game. A third sack–a drive-killer which helps lead to a three-and-out–is just reward for Smith and the 49ers and just punishment for the Steelers and their inability to pinpoint and correct the obvious flaw in their protection.
Q4 – 7:57
The three-and-out that Smith set up with that sack on second down he helps finish on the final play of the drive by getting to Roethlisberger once again for the hit. As we have seen each time Smith has got pressure with that stunt the following play he comes back with the outside pass rush and once again simply overpowers Max Starks. This throw does not take tremendously long to come out, but Smith simply dominates Starks, driving his inside shoulder back and to the inside, giving him a path to the quarterback to take him down after the throw. Smith’s domination of this night is now almost complete.
Q4 – 4:34
Smith’s final pressure and final sack of the night comes, fittingly, from yet another cross with Justin Smith. This time he does not make use of his fellow lineman driving the inside pass protector up the field. This time Aldon Smith is simply too quick for Trai Essex to peel off of Justin Smith and pick up the block. Roethlisberger’s lack of mobility sees him left as a sitting duck as Smith rounds the corner and takes the Pittsburgh quarterback down as he tries to escape. A third sack and the Steelers once again embarrassed by a cross.
Aldon Smith rightly stole the headlines for his performance in this game but he would surely be the first to doff his cap to his fellow defensive linemen for helping him to set him up and giving him the favorable matchups that he took full advantage of on his way to the best game of his professional career. Six of Smith’s 11 total pressures came off of that simple stunt with either Justin Smith or Ray McDonald and it was the ability of those two to get up the field that gave him the opportunities that he took in such devastating fashion.
The 49ers’ ability to use this aggressive inside move came as a result of Ben Roethlisberger’s injury completely taking away his mobility. Ordinarily, such an aggressive inside move against Roethlisberger would see him flush from the pocket on a broken play; a danger to the defense. However, this week Roethlisberger was nothing more than a statue and is lack of mobility to even slide past the rush highlighted a glaring weakness in the Pittsburgh offense, their line. Whether by scheme adjustments from their coaching staff or the offensive line simply raising their game, they needed more from the interior in this game and they didn’t get it. Roethlisberger couldn’t get to the edge of the pocket and the Steelers couldn’t protect the middle. The 49ers capitalized on this weakness mercilessly and Smith was the main benefactor.
Smith showed in this game what a powerful pass rusher he was as Max Starks and Doug Legursky simply couldn’t handle him in one-on-one situations. It’s ominous to think that this big game for Smith came as a result of two set plays, a cross and a powerful outside pass rush–not just speed he was driving through shoulders as opposed to running around blocks. If Smith can add more pass rush moves to his repertoire, it may not bear thinking about for his NFC West foes what sort of a pass rusher he could become in the coming seasons. With his individual ability working off Justin Smith, this is arguably the most fearsome combination of an interior and exterior pass rusher in the NFL right now.
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.