No. 2: Justin Smith, DE, San Francisco 49ers
The Cincinnati Bengals once allowed Justin Smith to seek his fortune elsewhere in free agency. Maybe he was miscast in their 4-3 defense, or maybe he never realized his potential for the Bengals. Since that point in time he has been one of the best players in football for the 49ers.
He’s not playing a glamour position, and doesn’t get the massive sack numbers of edge rushers. One of the truths in the NFL right now is that there is no more disruptive force to an offense than Justin Smith. When game planning every offensive coordinator knows full well that they have to try and contain him before they play the 49ers.
Possessing a devastating combination of brute force and technique, and enough versatility to be a factor on every down and in multiple spots, Smith challenges an opponent like few others. Over the course of the game he will make himself known to the entire left side of an offensive line as well as any tight ends and running backs expected to help out in pass protection. He has the ability to bull-rush any of these blockers or beat them to the inside or outside with his quickness and technique.
Smith is the best interior pass-rushing force in football and he does it without selling out to get to the quarterback. He also maintains an extremely high level of play against the run. The 49ers play him as 3-4 DE in their base formations, but he will kick inside to DT as part of a four-man front (albeit often with a stand up rush linebacker) in their nickel package. In either instance, a team is going to have to get Smith blocked before they do anything else, and that level of attention was a big reason behind the success Aldon Smith enjoyed as a rookie. The pair of Smiths were able to run the same simple stunt over and over with teams struggling badly to deal with it because of the impact getting Justin Smith blocked had on the pass protection. Smith is one of those players who not only dominates, but is so good he makes those around him better as well.
Justin Smith has never won the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award, and that should have changed this season. While he will again have to settle for the recognition of his peers, he can now see his name at No. 2 in the PFF Top 101, as the top defensive player on the list.
Best Game: Week 6 @ Detroit Lions (+8.5)
Though he isn’t an edge rusher with the cleanest path to the quarterback, there are games where Justin Smith dominates his opposition to the degree that he puts up stats that any pass-rushing specialist would be proud of. The matchup against Detroit was one such game. Smith finished it with a pair of sacks, a knockdown, and six more pressures on the QB while also acting as a force against the run.
It wasn’t just the stats that he put up though, but the time that he made his plays that was the big story in this game. The 49ers had kicked a field goal to take a six-point lead with just over a minute left in the game. The Lions took the field looking to march down for a game-winning touchdown, but Smith had other plans. On first down of that drive, he and Ray McDonald collapsed the pocket to bring down Matthew Stafford and run nearly 30 seconds off the clock. On the next snap, he beat LT Jeff Backus around the edge to force a quick check down over the middle, leaving the Lions with virtually no time left in which to work. Smith is capable of taking over games with unblockable dominance, and was responsible for the 49ers eking out a win on more than one occasion last season with clutch play at the biggest time in the game.
Key Stat: Finished the year with 15 more combined sacks, hits, and hurries than any other 3-4 end in the regular season (69) .
Traditionally, 3-4 defensive ends were just there to occupy space and blockers and free up linebackers to make plays and to rush the passer. More recently the league has changed tack, and 3-4 ends can be bruising athletes capable of rushing the passer as well as playing the run. With the league moving to sub-packages more and more, those same players that are playing the 5-technique end spot in a 3-4 alignment are also expected to play more of a 3-technique defensive tackle spot inside on passing downs. Justin Smith has the pass-rushing skills from the inside to rival any player in football. Equally capable of playing two-gaps or shooting one to kill runs in the backfield, he comes into his own when he is turned loose to rush the passer.
Smith is able to generate pressure at a different rate from any other interior rusher in the NFL. Geno Atkins was our top pass-rushing defensive tackle last season, and he totaled 49 pressures from 458 pass rushing snaps. That is a pressure once every 9.3 snaps rushing. Outside of Justin Smith, the best mark for 3-4 defensive ends was the 51 total pressures produced by Houston’s Antonio Smith. He rushed the passer 467 times producing pressure once every 9.2 snaps rushing. Justin Smith, though, rushed 590 times and notched 69 total pressures, 15 more than any other interior rusher, and at a rate of pressure once every 8.6 attempts. Despite rushing significantly more than any other interior player, Smith was able to produce pressure at a notably better rate and his run D didn’t suffer.
Smith is a complete player, and an every-down dominant force in today’s NFL. For being the game’s best defender in 2011– one of the game’s best players, period–he earns the No. 2 spot on our Top 101 of 2011.
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