Aldon Smith was sensational as a rookie for the 49ers last season, adding the extra dimension of a pure pass-rushing specialist.
The first-year linebacker/defensive end from Missouri, who had been the No. 7 overall pick in the NFL Draft, had four games with at least two sacks en route to 14 overall sacks, just a half-sack off the league’s rookie record for a season.
He finished second in the voting for the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award (won by Denver’s Von Miller), but the 49ers viewed No. 99 after last season as a player with special skills – long arms, strength, speed and a will to get to the quarterback – who might only get better.
“He is a unique talent in the sense that he’s got a defensive end’s size (6-foot-4, 258 pounds) and the mobility, agility and speed of a linebacker,” Niners GM Trent Baalke told Pro Football Weekly. “He’s a pressure player. He had proven to use that he had a knack for getting to the quarterback.”
Now in his second season, more has been expected of Smith – but Smith is delivering.
Now an every-down outside linebacker rather than a passing-down rush specialist, Smith has 4½ sacks this season through four games, which puts him ahead of last year’s pace.
Last season, Smith didn’t register his first sack of a quarterback until the fourth game, when he picked up 1½.
During Sunday’s 34-0 rout of the Jets at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, Smith set the tone for the shutout with a sack of New York quarterback Mark Sanchez to end the Jets’ first drive, then added a second sack later and stripped the ball from Sanchez, with the fumble recovered by Justin Smith. A third sack was wiped out by a penalty.
After his first sack, Smith ran around the field rotating his arms like windmills, mimicking a celebration he saw while playing a video soccer game with two teammates, reported Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle.
“I did it on the (video) game,” Smith told Branch. “So I said if I get a sack, I’ll do it in the game.”
This season, Smith sacked Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers in Game No. 1, had 1½ sacks on the Lions’ Matthew Stafford in the second week but then was shut out in the 49ers’ loss to the Vikings in Minnesota in Week No. 3.
That was a loss that burned with many of the 49ers players, who came out Sunday against the Jets determined to get back on the winning track.
“After that last game, some people questioned us,” Smith told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group. “We know what we are capable of.”
For the Niners defense, the shutout of the Jets was a glimpse into what San Francisco is capable of doing: rushing the passer, shutting down receivers and stopping the run. The Jets could get nothing going.
On Monday, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said the unit played “a gem” of a game.
“Every guy played within the framework of the defense, playing their ace they had individually,” he told reporters.
Cornerback Carlos Rogers, who returned a fumble 51 yards for a touchdown, said the defense wanted to make a statement after its play a week earlier.
“Coach Vic (Fangio) talked this week and told us to play 49ers ball and play how we should play," he said. "Did we imagine a shutout? No, but we finished plays, got turnovers and got off the field on third down.”
And, with Aldon Smith, got after the quarterback.
This summer in training camp, Smith said he wanted to improve on his rookie sack total.
“I don’t have a number set, but I want to improve on what I did last year,” he said.
With 12 games to go, that certainly appears do-able.