For the third biggest threat in the NFC West, the 49ers have their second straight entry. Previously, Vernon Davis checked in at number four, and Patrick Peterson at number five. The three groups preceding were The Ignored, The In-Between, and The Threats.
Justin Smith signed a free agent deal with the 49ers in 2008 after spending the first seven seasons of his career as a Cincinnati Bengal. Since his arrival in San Francisco, he has been one of the most dominant defensive tackles in the NFL. Or has he?
There is some dispute over what position Justin Smith actually plays.
· The 49ers official team roster lists him as a defensive tackle.
· NFL.com lists him as a defensive end.
· ESPN.com says tackle.
· Profootballfocus.com says end.
· SI.com - tackle.
Footballoutsiders.com - end.
· Rotoworld.com gives up on the entire situation, and just calls him a defensive lineman
Despite all the disagreement over what position he plays, no one can dispute he is one of a handful of the best defensive linemen in football.
Justin Smith is a Missouri boy through and through. He was born in Missouri, grew up in Missouri, played high school football for Jefferson City High School, and was a Missouri Tiger in college. Now, he plays for the hater 49ers. More importantly, he is the most underrated player in the NFL over the last decade.
The third biggest threat in the NFC West, I present to you - Justin Smith...
The 2011 season for Justin Smith was as dominant a season as you will see from a 3-4 defensive (end? tackle?) lineman. He earned all of the following accolades:
· 3rd place in AP Defensive Player of the Year voting
· Selected to a third consecutive Pro Bowl
· Named defensive player of the year by Football Outsiders
· Voted team MVP by the 49ers staff
· Rated the second best overall player in the NFL by ProFootballFocus
· Received enough votes to make the All Pro team at both defensive end and defensive tackle
Out of all those awards, two in particular jump out to me. The first is the team MVP award. Justin Smith's teammates on defense include Carlos Rogers, Ray McDonald, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, and some guy named Patrick Willis. 2011 was the first year for the 49ers staff, and they had undoubtedly come in hearing the name Patrick Willis everywhere. They took a chance on Aldon Smith, despite him being considered a bit of a "reach" with the 7th overall pick in the 2011 draft, then watched him blossom into the runner-up for defensive rookie of the year. For the San Francisco coaches to overlook those things and select Justin Smith as the MVP of the team is a testament to his hard work and talent.
The second accolade which stands out to me is the All Pro voting. Justin Smith was voted to the Second Team All Pro team as a defensive end, which isn't his official position on the team roster. He also received enough votes to make the First Team All Pro team as a defensive tackle, which is his actual, official listed position. No one has ever been voted to the Pro Bowl at multiple positions before. Justin Smith was so dominant in 2011, he made the First Team despite voters not knowing what position he plays. The voters decided "it doesn't matter what position he plays, this dude needs to be on the team". Once voting is made public on accolades like an All-Star team or an All Pro team, there are usually arguments about which players actually deserve to be on the team. The only argument people had about Justin Smith in 2011 was, "at which position does he deserve the honor more?"
This wasn't the first dominant year for Justin Smith since his arrival in San Francisco, either. He has made the Pro Bowl in each of the last three seasons with the 49ers. This period has corresponded with San Francisco's rise into the elite rushing defenses in the NFL, ranking 6th, 6th, and 1st the last three seasons, by official NFL rankings. The 49ers average ranking in rushing defense for the three seasons prior to Justin Smith's arrival was 20th.
Despite Justin Smith being labeled as a "bust" by some Bengals' fans and media types, Smith was no slouch in Cincinnati. Playing out of position as a 4-3 defensive tackle(and even a bit of outside linebacker), Justin Smith still averaged 6.2 sacks per season, while leading all Bengal defensive linemen in tackles, both solo and assisted, over the course of his time there.
Now Smith has escaped from Cincinnati and the 4-3 defense that was never a proper fit for his talents. He's now playing in a 3-4 for the 49ers, and has become a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Here is what makes defensive end/tackle Justin Smith so dangerous.
Justin Smith - Speedster
In week 4 against the Eagles, the 49ers found themselves down 23 - 3 in the third quarter. Alex Smith and Frank Gore, along with a comedy of errors by Philadelphia, have gotten the 49ers back into the game, scoring 21 unanswered points to take a 24 - 23 lead. The Eagles got the ball back with three minutes remaining in the game, and one chance to avoid dropping to 1 - 4 in a "Super Bowl or bust" season.
Michael Vick completed four passes in a row to moves the Eagles to midfield. After a penalty on the 49ers, the Eagles had a second and five at the San Francisco 49 yard line. Vick completes a pass to the left to Jeremy Maclin for a gain of 17 yards down to the 32 yard line, putting the Eagles in field goal distance with just over two minutes to go.
A little Jeremy Maclin background: He is a former Missouri Tiger (like Justin Smith). He ran an unofficial 4.34 second 40 yard dash. He was drafted with the 19th overall pick by the Eagles in the 2009 draft, and was coming off a near 1,000 yard season in 2010.
With the game on the line, none of that mattered to Justin Smith. Despite apparently being out of the play, Smith continued to hustle, running as fast as he was physically able, catching Jeremy Maclin from behind. Smith then had the presence of mind to go for the football, stripping Maclin and allowing the 49ers to recover the fumble - preserving a win for San Francisco.
This play tells you so much about the heart of Justin Smith. As other 49ers linemen and linebackers jog behind the play, defensive lineman Justin Smith is running down wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and separating him from the football. Hard to overstate how much hustle and determination this play shows.
(There is a replay after the full speed play, allowing Smith's moves to be easier seen.)
In week one of the 2011 season, the 49ers played the Seahawks. This play takes place with five minutes remaining in the first quarter. The score is tied 0 - 0. To Justin Smith, it doesn't matter if it's the first quarter of game one, or the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. He will be putting in maximum effort, no matter the situation.
Smith is against Russell Okung, the highly touted but oft injured left tackle of the Seahawks. Smith drives into Okung, causing Russell to start bracing himself for a bull rush. The moment Okung is off balance with his weight shifted back, Smith puts an NBA-level spin move on him, causing Okung to nearly fall over when Smith releases. Smith is on Jackson instantly after getting free from Okung, and tosses Tavaris to the ground like a rag doll.
Justin Smith has one of the best bull rushes in the NFL (as you'll soon see). He uses his bull rush to set guys up for his finesse moves, like this insane spin. When you read about Justin Smith, most of what you read is about his heart and determination, and he is, indeed, a very determined player. But sometimes he doesn't get the credit he deserves for the level of skill he possesses.
Each season, the folks over at ProFootballFocus.com do a piece on the top ten games from each position. In 2011, Justin Smith had the 7th highest rated game by a 3-4 defensive end when he played the Seahawks in week one. He walked out of the Seattle game with two sacks, three hits, and five pressures. And that was only his 4th highest rated game of the season. Out of the ten highest rated games, Justin Smith had the 1st, 2nd, 5th, and two games tied for the 7th spots.
The Bull Rush
Jermon Bushrod was the starting left tackle for the Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints in 2009. He was part of the group who was recognized as the best offensive line in football in 2010. He was a starting tackle for the NFC Pro Bowl team in 2011. Bushrod is a very good NFL left tackle.
Justin Smith bulls through him like he isn't even there. Bushrod starts the play at the nine yard line. His first contact with Justin Smith is at the seven yard line. By the time the play is over, Bushrod is driven into Drew Brees's back at the three yard line. Bushrod is 315 pounds, and Justin Smith drove him back four yards and into his quarterback.
After driving Bushrod into Brees, you would think Smith would be finished. Brees has had his timing disrupted, so Smith has done his job. Justin Smith, however, is not satisfied. He leaps into Bushrod's arms, grabbing Brees's jersey in the process. Thanks to pure heart, and incredible strength, Justin Smith causes a key 4th quarter third down pass by Brees to be thrown harmlessly into the turf.
What more can I say about Justin Smith? This play shows you everything you need to know. Strength, skill, and will to win, all rolled into a 300 pound, quarterback terrorizing package.
If Justin Smith can rush the passer or stop the rush, with either a bull rush or finesse moves - while playing tackle or end - and has the will to keep chasing offensive players until the end of time, what hope do the Rams have to deal with him? Unfortunately, the optimism I felt about the Rams' ability to deal with Vernon Davis doesn't carry over to Justin Smith.
Clearly, the first thing the Rams will have to do is retool and rebuild their offensive line. If the line is one of the worst in the league again, they can't hope to stop anyone, much less handle Justin Smith. Constant line shifts, pulling starters for backups, and overwhelming numbers of injuries just won't cut it if the Rams are going to have a prayer of dealing with Smith.
Assuming the offensive line is up to snuff, what specific strategies must the Rams employ to deal with Justin Smith? A primary weapon against Smith is a quick release by the quarterback. The playcalling also needs to reflect the situation. On obvious passing downs, routes need to develop quickly and need to not be lengthy routes, which cause the offensive line to have to deal with Justin Smith and the ferocious 49ers pass rush longer than need be.
Double teams are also an option. Although the 49ers have other rushers in Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, and Ray Mcdonald, their most dangerous rusher is still Justin Smith. He must be accounted for on every pass play. Double teams don't always have to be two offensive linemen, and they don't always have to last the entire play. A simple chip by a running back heading out into the flat, or a redirect by a tight end is often enough to allow the offense to run a successful play.
In the end, the Rams are going to struggle with players like Justin Smith for the foreseeable future. A 2 - 14 team can't be rebuilt in one offseason. It will take time to get the right players to gel in the right positions. Until then, their best bet for dealing with Justin Smith is to...
...hope his Missouri roots cause him to take it easy on us.