Break It Down: Why Von Miller and Aldon Smith are dominating
The NFL's single-season sack record, held by Michael Strahan, currently stands at 22.5. With six weeks left in the 2012 regular season, San Francisco's Aldon Smith has tallied 15 sacks, Denver's Von Miller 13.
In other words, it's possible that Strahan's record falls. That's especially true if Smith and Miller somehow maintain their paces from Week 11 -- Miller dropped Philip Rivers three times, while Smith recorded an absurd 5.5 sacks against the Bears and Jason Campbell.
San Diego and Chicago tried and failed miserably to block Miller and Smith, respectively, using one-on-one approaches. But what makes the defensive dynamos even more difficult to play against is that they're capable of wrecking havoc in a number of different ways, from varying spots on the field.
The Broncos technically operate out of a base 4-3 defense, while the 49ers use a 3-4 starting point. However, the two teams adjust those looks frequently, with one of the main goals being to create pressure on the QB.
How did Miller and Smith thrive in Week 11? Let's Break It Down ...
Miller's first sack Sunday came with him lined up opposite San Diego right tackle Jeromey Clary. This was more of a 4-3 look from the Broncos' front, but they also had a dime package (six DBs) on the field.
Regardless, with Ronnie Brown (No. 30 in white) releasing and tight end Antonio Gates split out wide, the Chargers did not have any extra help on Miller. So, this wound up being a Clary-vs.-Miller matchup.
Suffice it to say, that's not a great matchup for the Chargers.
With the Broncos showing that 4-3 look, right guard Louis Vasquez (65) had to deal with the defender lined up over him. You can see Miller here using a wicked swim move to blow by Clary and, once that happened, Rivers was a sitting duck.
San Diego had a similar issue on a passing play later -- which wound up being the second time Miller knocked the ball from Rivers' grasp. This time around, the Broncos had a nickel package (5 DBs) on the field and lined up in more of a 3-4 look, with a tackle over the center and Miller wider.
Right end Elvis Dumervil dropped into coverage, helping to pick up Brown out of the backfield. Linebacker Wesley Woodyward, meanwhile, blitzed.
The result was four Denver pass rushers wrapped from the center to Rivers' extreme right. Rivers' primary target here was tight end Antonio Gates, so he quickly locked his eyes on No. 85.
Unfortunately for Rivers, outside of his peripheral vision was Miller, one-on-one again with Clary, using that swim move to blow past the Chargers' tackle.
That swim move looks familiar ... where else have we seen that?
See ya, Gabe Carimi.
That was Smith's fourth sack of Monday night against the Bears, and it was more or less a carbon copy of those two Miller sacks from above -- Smith wide to the QB's right, one-on-one against the tackle, with the running back releasing and no tight end help. It's really asking too much for a tackle to handle that situation his own against a pass rusher of Smith's ilk.
Just as the Broncos switched up their defensive looks, so too did the 49ers. On that sack, the 49ers had only two linemen on the field, Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, then rushed linebackers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks.
That's an approach the 49ers use often, and put to work again late in the game, when Campbell was taken down and fumbled on a play that eventually resulted in a safety. There, San Francisco lined McDonald up over the center, with Justin Smith out to McDonald's right and Aldon Smith to the left.
This time, the Bears had two players in position on Aldon Smith: Carimi and Lance Louis. But ...
There's that swim move again. Unstoppable, though on this play, Louis should have been over faster to help -- a three-man rush should not physically dominate a five-man line.
Oh, and speaking of physical domination ...
That swim move is all well and good, but it's only a part of Smith's repertoire. He's also abnormally strong, especially for a player with the type of quickness and athleticism he has.
Multiple times en route to his 5.5 sacks on Monday, he straight up overpowered a blocker. Here, it's left tackle J'Marcus Webb:
Then, later, Smith came up with one of the most impressive individual efforts you'll see along the defensive line. The play in question started with Smith lined up wide right along San Francisco's front. Next to him, tucked in front of NaVorro Bowman (53) was Justin Smith. Again, the 49ers had only Justin Smith and McDonald on the field as traditional D-linemen, with Aldon Smith and Brooks standing up on the ends.
Aldon Smith stunted inside, with Justin Smith rolling outside.
For once, it looked like the Bears had Aldon Smith taken care of once that occurred. Even with no tight end help and a releasing running back, two Bears' linemen converged on Aldon Smith as Justin Smith swung wide, with another blocker doubling back to take him.
Instead, Aldon Smith plowed his way through the double-team, driving both blockers back into Campbell.
That stunt move can be a killer, because Aldon Smith is quick enough to get inside before the bigger, slower offensive linemen have time to react. Pair that with those same linemen having to account for Justin Smith, and you wind up with situations like this:
That's Aldon Smith circled -- he looped around Justin Smith on this play, while both Webb and left guard Chilo Rachal stay home. The other element in play there comes from the blitz San Francisco showed up the middle. By doing that, it forced Chicago center Roberto Garza to hesitate in case he had to pick up a linebacker.
That hesitation left the door wide open for Aldon Smith.
Good luck with that, Jason Campbell.
Miller is equally as tough for linemen to account for, because not only do the Broncos shift him to opposite ends of the line, but he also does drop in coverage on a regular basis. Here, he lined up over Antonio Gates, with the Broncos in a 4-3, then dropped to cover Gates one-on-one.
Later, though, with Miller lined up in the same spot -- over Gates on the right side of Denver's line -- and the Broncos in a 3-4 look, Miller took a couple of steps back in coverage, then reversed field.
The brief jam Miller employed on Gates knocked him out of his route, and by delaying before diving inside of teammate Derek Wolfe, Miller was able to create an opening along the interior.
Miller's pass rush resulted in an incompletion, with Woodyard and Chris Harris both in the vicinity of Gates as Rivers spiked a ball at his feet. Even when Miller isn't coming up with sacks, his versatility causes major headaches for opposing offenses.
Miller shares that trait with Aldon Smith -- and with all of the NFL's great pass rushers. Both Miller and Smith are enjoying sensational years, and both were thoroughly dominant in Week 11. So, how do you block them? The scary part for offensive coordinators is that, because of how Miller and Smith are used, there may not be an obvious answer.