Return of Aldon Smith Should Give 49ers a Boost

Weak pass rush should profit from return of outside linebacker Aldon Smith, who's averaged nearly a sack per game over his short career

Through nine games, the 49ers have just 15 sacks, which ranks tied for 24th in the NFL.

Though the San Francisco defense has played relatively well in 2014, it hasn’t had the dangerous pass rush it’s had in recent seasons. The 49ers are averaging just 1.67 sacks per game.

In 2013 and 2012, for instance, the 49ers had 38 sacks (2.4 per game). In 2011, the 49ers had 42 (2.6 per game).

Now, as the 5-4 49ers prepare to play the 3-6 Giants in New Jersey this Sunday (10 a.m. PST), they’re about to get a big boost.

Outside linebacker Aldon Smith, his nine-game suspension served, is set to begin practice today and will likely play this Sunday.

In just 43 NFL games, Smith has 42 sacks. In his first two full seasons, he had totals of 14 and 19½ sacks. In just 11 games last season, he had 8½.

Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh this week told reporters he’s eager for Smith to be back on the field, but the team hasn’t indicated how he will be used – whether he’ll be thrust immediately back into a starting role or eased in, trading snaps with rookie Aaron Lynch, who played every defensive play this past Sunday in the victory over New Orleans.

NFL analyst Ed Werder this week cautioned that Smith may not be an immediate impact player, and points to Smith’s performance last year after sitting out several games while spending time in a rehab facility.

“When he came back he wasn’t the same player,” he said. “He had 4½ sacks in the first three games of the season, then left for five games, played the second half of the season and only had four sacks the remainder of the season and was shut out in six of the eight games.”

Even if Smith isn’t up to par immediately, his return is the first among several key missing players for the 49ers on defense. Over the next few games, linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman also are set to return – a big boost for the team as it makes its push to return to the playoffs for the fourth straight year under Harbaugh.

For the 49ers, trailing the Cardinals and Seahawks in the NFC West race, almost every game now is a must-win. Harbaugh’s team certainly played that way this past Sunday in the overtime victory over the Saints.

So the return of Smith, Bowman and Willis should be a boost.

Said Harbaugh: “As Anquan Boldin said, ‘These now are one-game seasons for us,’ and that’s the way we’ll approach them. They played with us much heart, as much hustle, as much fight as I’ve ever seen our teams play since we’ve been here.”

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