Niners linebacker Aldon Smith leads the NFL in sacks. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Dolphins rookie offensive tackle Jonathan Martin knows it will be hard to keep up with the Smiths this Sunday, but he’s determined to give it his best shot.
The former Stanford lineman will be playing left tackle for Miami at Candlestick Park against the 49ers in place of four-time Pro Bowler Jake Long, who is out with a season-ending injury.
It will be Martin’s first start at left tackle as the blind-side protector for quarterback Ryan Tannehill, and it will come against the Niners’ dynamic duo of defensive end Justin Smith and outside linebacker Aldon Smith.
An All-Pro pick a year ago, Justin Smith is playing just as well this season for the 8-3-1 49ers, and has three sacks over his past three games. Aldon Smith leads the NFL in sacks with 17½ and needs 5½ sacks over the final four games of the season to break the NFL single-season record of 22½ held by the Giants’ Michael Strahan.
Martin, who’s been moved over to the left side of the line from where he’d been playing at right tackle, will have his hands full trying to keep the Smiths off Tannehill. Very few tackles this season have been able to control them, but Martin is amped up to give it his best shot.
“I want to be the guy who can go out there and lock my man down, so that’s my goal every week,” he told the Florida Sun-Sentinel this week.
Added Martin: “I think anyone who is in the NFL at the offensive tackle wants to play left. It’ll be fun. It’s unfortunate circumstances that led me to get the position, but I’m going to try to make the most of it and prove that I belong there.”
Dolphins coach Joe Philbin, in a conference call with Bay Area reporters Wednesday, said Martin has performed well this season and “hasn’t batted an eye” in facing the challenges presented to him in his first year in the league.
But going against two of the league’s best this Sunday will be a challenge of the highest order.
Justin Smith told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group that he believes the Dolphins will try to give Martin – whom he called “a serviceable tackle in the league” -- as much help as possible, with other blockers moving into Martin’s zone to slow down 49ers pass rushers.
Slowing down Aldon Smith, however, is going to be very difficult. In his past six games, the second-year outside linebacker has 13 sacks.
After an outstanding rookie season as a situational pass rusher, he’s been even better this season as a full-time starter.
“He’s done everything to take his game to the other level,” Justin Smith told Inman.
At 5-7, the Dolphins have a number of offensive weapons, with Tannehill showing potential (2,559 yards and seven TD passes), veteran running back Reggie Bush (726 yards rushing, 189 receiving) and wide receivers Brian Hartline and Davone Bess (116 catches combined).
The Dolphins have done a fairly good job protecting Tannehill, who’s been sacked 23 times. In part, that’s because Tannehill has a quick release, says 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis.
But Miami’s ability to protect its quarterback this Sunday may face its toughest test Sunday facing a pass rush led by Smith and Smith.
Justin Smith knows that with the rookie Martin in Long’s spot, the Dolphins will do everything they can to keep Tannehill upright.
“It’s definitely not Long in there,” Justin Smith told reporters. “But there’s things you can do. You can chip. You can slide the line. You can do some bootlegs, which is a big part of their offense as well, to help (Martin) out. We kind of anticipate all those type of deals going on.”