One of the best pass-rushing moves in the 2012 NFL season is the San Francisco 49ers’ twist with defensive lineman Justin Smith and outside linebacker Aldon Smith.
Justin Smith, the premier 3-4 defensive end in the NFL, lines up between left guard and tackle, and rushes at the left tackle’s right shoulder. Aldon Smith, one of the league’s best rushers from outside linebacker, loops behind him and has several yards to build speed toward the left guard.
The result often is devastating. Justin Smith, a good inside rusher who uses his hands as well as any defensive lineman in the league, is the decoy and blocker eater. The guard honors his initial outside move, and then Justin Smith crashes into the left tackle while also grabbing the guard. By the time the guard realizes the twist is on and gets away, the explosive Aldon Smith often is blowing through the gap on his way to engulfing the quarterback.
The Smith twist is one of the reasons Aldon Smith finished No. 2 in the NFL in sacks with 19½, behind only Houston’s J.J. Watt (20½). It’s also one of the reasons why Justin Smith’s partially torn left triceps looms as a huge factor in the divisional-round playoff game between the Green Bay Packers and the 49ers on Saturday night.
Justin Smith injured his triceps late in the third quarter of a Dec. 16 game at New England. The 49ers generally were regarded as the NFL’s top defense up to that point and going into the New England game ranked No. 1 in fewest points allowed and No. 2 in fewest yards. But in the fourth quarter they gave up four touchdowns to the Patriots.
Without Justin Smith the next week at Seattle, the 49ers gave up 42 points in a blowout loss, then came back in the regular-season finale and beat probably the NFL’s worst offense, the 5-11 Arizona Cardinals, 27-13.
If Justin Smith’s absence wasn’t the only reason for the decline in performance, it’s also clear the 49ers aren’t quite the same dominating defense without him. It’s also worth noting that in the little more than 2 1/4 games the 33-year-old defensive lineman missed, Aldon Smith had no sacks.
“(Justin Smith) is a pretty important dude,” said a scout from a 49ers rival in the NFC West Division. “He does a good job of taking up two blockers, which allows Aldon Smith to run free and hit the quarterback. That’s taking a little bit away from Aldon Smith, because he’s a heck of a player with or without him, but you could see the difference in production and loss of production without Justin Smith.
“If they get him back this week that will be huge. Now, he’s got a triceps injury. You’re not healed in three weeks. That’s something that will take five weeks, six weeks, a good offseason, to get that healed up. Will they be able to get that swelling down? Probably. And strengthen the muscles around it to help it out? Sure. But he won’t be 100 percent until after the season. But yeah, he’s a force, he’s a beast.”
Justin Smith has told reporters he will need surgery after the season, but it appears a given he’ll play Saturday night against the Packers. He returned to practice on a limited basis for the 49ers’ two practices during their playoff bye last week.
The issue is the quality of his play. Will he be the player who is going to his fourth straight Pro Bowl this year, was named All-Pro last season (and possibly will be this year), and is nearly the consensus choice as best 3-4 defensive end in the NFL? Or will he be significantly compromised, maybe even a shell of himself, trying to play while wearing a huge brace that runs from his wrist to his shoulder and will limit his ability to his left hand and arm?
One assistant coach from a team in the NFC West predicted he will play well.
“I’ve never been with somebody that’s had that injury and tried to play, so I can’t speak from experience on that,” he said. “I know what they ask (Justin Smith) to do in their defense, and I know as tough as he is – he’s right there now as far as tough guys go. I think he can still be effective for them.”
Another scout from the division agreed but questioned whether Smith will finish the game.
“He’s going to be a kick-(butt) guy until his arm goes out on him, then he’ll be standing on the sideline,” the scout said. “I know they’re going to try to coach him up to play smart, play within himself, stay within the game and all that. But you know how it is in the heat of the battle, you’re trying to rip roar and kick somebody’s (butt).
“And you have to use your hands at that position. You have to use your hands to push, to pull. He does a lot of pulling. He’ll grab a tackle and pull his outside shoulder so one of the guys get free to get off the edge. He has to be able to use his hands. Once he isn’t able to do that, he’ll be done for the day.”
A third scout from the NFC West said it’s anybody’s guess whether Justin Smith will be effective.
“It sounds like it’s how well the individual tolerates pain,” the scout said. “A lot of this won’t be determined until he starts playing, then they’ll figure out, can he play with this and will he be effective? Or is he playing like a one-armed man out there? I don’t think they’ll know that until the first couple series.”
Last weekend, another defensive player, Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis, played with a similar but even worse injury. Lewis fully tore a triceps in Week 6, and it appeared likely to sideline him the rest of the season. But he returned for the wild-card playoff round after 11 weeks of rehabilitation and was in on 13 tackles in a win over Indianapolis while wearing the same kind of brace Justin Smith will have.
At age 37, Lewis wasn’t nearly the player he was earlier in his career even before the injury, and he was beaten in pass coverage several times. But he seemed to move fine.
“Keep in mind, Ray can get by with not hitting anybody,” one of the scouts said, “where Justin Smith is going to hit somebody every play. That’s going to be the telltale sign. How long with that hold up?”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.