Pass Rusher Profile: Aldon Smith
PFF's Ben Stockwell continues his in-depth analysis of the NFL's most dangerous pass rushers with this look at the 49er's Aldon Smith.
Pass Rusher Profile: Aldon Smith
It’s hard to imagine a pass rusher having two seasons to start his career like Aldon Smith has had and not be the best pass rusher to emerge from his draft class. But that’s the situation Smith finds himself in, having been selected five spots after the Denver Broncos took Von Miller, who was featured earlier in this series.
Smith holds the edge over Miller in terms of sacks, but the two are tied when it comes to total pressures with 162 over their two seasons in the league. Only Cameron Wake (also featured earlier in this series) has recorded more total pressure in the past two seasons, with 167.
Having started out as a situational player for the 49ers, sharing playing time with Parys Haralson (who took base formation snaps) Smith flourished in a full-time role in 2012 and put in a stellar campaign. Off the back of his sack number many wanted to put Smith alongside the likes of J.J. Watt, Miller and Geno Atkins in consideration for Defensive Player of the Year, but his performances weren’t quite up to their level in terms of consistency.
He had the high peaks but didn’t regularly hit the heights. However, to suggest he isn’t in the league’s ultimate elite of defensive players is by no means a sleight on what was a tremendous season for a player proving once again to be a quality pass rusher while also showing he can hold down the run defense and occasional coverage skills required from a full-time defender.
Inside Pass Rush: 26 total pressures, pressure every 23.3 pass rushes
This past season Smith was, much like Miller, extremely balanced in terms of how he recorded his pressure, picking up as many pressures inside of opposing pass protectors (26; 6 Sk, 9 Ht, 11 Hu) as he did to the outside (26; 3 Sk, 4 Ht, 19 Hu). However, his strength since he entered the league has been his inside pass rush rather than outside.
In terms of rate (as you would expect with his Pass Rushing Productivity falling away) both his inside and outside pass rush numbers fell away this season from his 2011 marks. In his rookie season, Smith got pressure inside of opposing pass protectors an astonishing once every 11.4 pass rushes.
A lot of this strength across the two seasons comes from the fine work he does in combination with Justin Smith, which is a credit to both players and 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. The two Smiths do a lot of stunting off of each other, which we took a closer look at back in December 2011 when Aldon first announced his presence to a national TV audience in taking apart the Steelers’ porous offensive working in combination with his fellow Smith.
One of the great strengths Smith exhibited with his inside work this season was his closing percentage when he beat a pass protector — that is to say, converting that pressure into hits and sacks. Of his 26 “inside” pressures this season Smith converted more than 50% of them (15; 6 Sk, 9 Ht).
Only three other edge rushers who recorded more than 10 “inside” pressures this season (Bruce Irvin, 62.5%; Greg Hardy, 56.3%; Paul Kruger, 52.9%) managed to convert more than half of that pressure into taking the quarterback to ground, fully exploiting that shortest route to the QB.
Though he got pressure at a lower rate than his astonishing performance in 2011, his closing percentage was a clear step forward in 2012, and elevated him among the league’s best. Sometimes hyperbole got a little out of control with Smith’s season in terms of the peak and consistency of his play, but when you break his performance down there is so much to be excited about that it’s easy to see how people got carried away.
The Effect of Justin Smith: One Positive Pass Rush Grade From Week 15 to Season’s End
It’s amazing how quickly a strength for a team can be turned into a weakness for an individual, but Aldon Smith’s late-season performances did raise the specter of how much he is, to an extent, dependent upon the presence of Justin Smith to his inside. The 49ers and Aldon Smith do so much work off Justin Smith’s presence and his efforts in tying up and beating interior blockers, that when he is not there Aldon was left to carry the load as a pass rusher and his performance dropped away over the last two months of the 49ers’ season.
From the time Justin Smith was injured against the Patriots in Week 15 to their eventual Super Bowl defeat, Aldon Smith did not register a sack (having notched 20 in 13 games before that) and his pass rushing grade was -4.8 in those final six games compared to a +17.2 in the 13 games with a healthy No. 94 at his side.
In that time, Aldon still registered eight hits and turned in a tremendous performance (+4.1) against the Falcons in the conference championship game to get the 49ers to New Orleans, but this was not the same level of performance we had seen before from him.
When you set the bar as high as he has over his first two seasons, there aren’t many questions you have to answer, but one of those will inevitably be carrying the load on your own if you lose your right-hand man, and Aldon did not excel in that regard when he was either without Justin or when his running mate was clearly playing at less than 100%.
Another boost for Smith’s numbers this season — one that gives more context to his lower grade in spite of the amount of total pressure — was the how much pressure he recorded when he was unblocked. Astonishingly, no edge rusher recorded more pressure unblocked this season than Smith did with 14 total pressures; once every 43.4 pass rushes.
Only eight players recorded unblocked pressure more frequently than Smith who was tied for second place in the league (along with fellow 49er Ahmad Brooks, Anthony Spencer and Miller) with three unblocked sacks. Unlike Miller, though, his conversion rate on unblocked pressure was sub-par, converting only five of his 14 unblocked pressures into hits or sacks, compared to Miller going six-for-six on more limited unblocked opportunities.
D’Anthony Batiste: Six total pressures
Gabe Carimi: Three sacks
Unsurprisingly, two of Smith’s biggest games of the season as a pass rusher (Week 8 at Arizona and Week 11 vs Chicago) are represented among his chief victims for the season. Batiste was absolutely disastrous at left tackle for the Cardinals and Smith took advantage in two encounters against him.
Smith recorded four pressures, including two sacks, in what proved to be the straw that (almost) broke the camel’s back in Week 8, Batiste’s final full game (pulled after 19 snaps the following week in Green Bay) before Week 17 when he had the misfortune of re-entering the Cardinals’ lineup against, of all people, Aldon Smith again. Batiste did at least acquit himself better the second time around, but he still surrendered a hit in less than two seconds to Smith, along with a hurry in the third quarter.
His other victim is, to an extent, the forgotten man from Smith’s ultra-dominant midseason performance against the Bears on Monday Night Football. Two of Smith’s best three games of his career have come on Monday Night Football, including nine of his 37 career sacks.
The assumption from that dominant game, however, has widely been that Smith was beating up on J’Marcus Webb. The reality was that he maximized his sacks against fellow second-year player Gabe Carimi who was charged for three of Smith’s six sacks. Webb surrendered as much total pressure, but one less sack, than Carimi in that game. Against both players Smith worked almost exclusively in power moves to record pressure either using his bullrush, to go straight through the offensive lineman, or using his inside move to get inside of Carimi for a sack, as he did twice.
Russell Okung: No pressure allowed (two games)
Across two games, a stat line of one sack and six hurries looks like solid returns for Smith against division foe Seattle. However, none of those came against the Seahawks’ left tackle Russell Okung. This in spite of Smith rushing the passer from the right side of the formation on 35 occasions across the two games.
His seven total pressures in those two games either came unblocked (3 Hu), against right tackle Breno Giacomini (1 Sk, 2 Hu) or against tight end Zach Miller (1 Hu). After a shaky first two games of his season Okung was arguably the most consistent tackle in the league for the rest of the year, and surrendered only 12 pressures (2 Sk, 2 Ht, 8 Hu) in the remainder of the campaign.
Head back to his rookie season, and again Smith was also thwarted by Okung in their Week 1 encounter (Okung didn’t play in the Week 16 re-match) registering only a solitary hurry in his NFL debut. In what is looking like the league’s ultimate divisional matchup this season, the pressure is on Smith to redress the balance in this titanic matchup, which, after three encounters is currently reading as a 3-0 lead for the Seahawks’ left tackle.
While his efficiency as a pass rusher might have taken a step back in 2012, Smith still showed beyond any measure of doubt that he could step up and be a full-time edge defender in the NFL, and a very good one at that. He was still a productive pass rusher under a full-time load, a solid run defender, and wasn’t found wanting in coverage when he was called on to drop. Further to that, he showed he was not a one-trick-pony as a pass rusher, equally able to beat pass protectors inside and outside, and his combination with Justin Smith is a devastating one.
In our estimation he is not among the league’s truly elite, but that’s not to say that he can’t get there, more that his 2012 season fell short of being among the likes of Von Miller (comparable total pressure on 150 fewer pass rushes) and J.J. Watt in terms of consistently hitting that peak performance.
If Smith can put to bed the doubters about his ability to play at his best without a full strength Justin Smith next to him, and start to make inroads against Russell Okung in what will surely be his most important matchup of the season, then that place among the league’s highest echelon of defensive players is surely his for the taking.
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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.