Embattled linebacker Aldon Smith returned from his nine-game suspension just in time to help the 49ers compensate for a sluggish offense against the Giants on Sunday. Two wins in a row now have this team thinking playoffs again
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — How much of a boost did Aldon Smith’s return give the 49ers’ defense?
Here’s one answer to that question.
Late in the second quarter of San Francisco’s 16-10 win over the Giants on Sunday, Eli Manning took a snap at New York’s 36-yard line with 41 seconds left until halftime. This was a pivotal down, one that could either prolong or stymie the two-minute drive. Smith, standing upright, lined up on the right side of the defensive formation, and the 49ers called a stunt that sent him inside against center J.D. Walton. As Smith rushed past him, Walton could do nothing but grab Smith’s jersey, visibly pulling down his left shoulder pad and getting flagged for a hold. The penalty cost the Giants eight seconds and 10 yards. “We know he can get to the quarterback at any time,” cornerback Perrish Cox said of Smith in the visitors’ locker room at MetLife Stadium, “so I’m assuming they knew the same thing.”
In his first game back from serving a nine-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct and substance abuse policies, Smith said he “started off a little slow and rusty,” but it didn’t take long for him to impact the game. He didn’t get on the field until the 10:09 mark of the second quarter but sat out only a few plays, based on yardage situations and personnel packages, the rest of the way. His play count: 54 of San Francisco’s 70 defensive snaps.
Smith was not mistake-free; his illegal block in the back subtracted most of Eric Reid’s 51-yard interception return in the third quarter. But his performance was much better than his stat line (two quarterback hits) suggests. He hurried Manning six times, and he disrupted the pocket’s integrity on at least 10 plays. A few examples:
• Second quarter, Giants’ second-and-7 in the red zone: The 49ers called for a stunt that had defensive tackle Tony Jerod-Eddie take on the left guard and left tackle, while Smith looped inside. Smith dived toward Manning, pressuring him into a rushed throw that sailed too high. Result: incomplete pass.
• Third quarter, Giants’ second-and-7 at their 25-yard line: Smith pushed left tackle Will Beatty backward to collapse the pocket. Manning stepped up, right into the path of defensive tackle Ray McDonald. Result: strip-sack by McDonald. (The Giants recovered the fumble.)
• Fourth quarter, Giants’ second-and-goal from the 4-yard line: Smith sprinted unchecked to Manning, jumping up and getting in his face as he threw a fade to Reuben Randle. Result: incomplete pass, the second of four stops during the Niners’ goal-line stand.
• Fourth quarter, ball at the Giants’ 19-yard line, third-and-6 on their final drive: Smith blew past Beatty inside and wrapped up Manning’s waist as the quarterback tumbled to the ground. Result: Manning threw the ball just in time to avoid being sacked, but the pass fell incomplete. After one more incomplete pass on fourth down, the 49ers secured the victory.
“Obviously a sack is a different statistic, and everybody loves that,” Smith said after the game, “but as long as I’m in and making a play that’s affecting the game, that’s all that matters to me.”
Smith was hardly the only contributor on a defense that compensated for the 49ers’ sluggish offense. Capitalizing on Manning’s bad decisions and bad throws, the linebackers and the defensive backs hauled in five interceptions. Facing pressure all afternoon, Manning exhibited what rookie inside linebacker Chris Borland described as “happy feet,” though happy wasn’t the right adjective to describe any part of Manning’s afternoon—especially after right tackle Justin Pugh left the game in the second quarter with a strained quad.
The 49ers, who were 4-4 before beating the Saints in overtime two weeks ago and the Giants on Sunday, had greatly missed Smith, who has 42 sacks in 44 career games. The defense, which is still without linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, ranks 25th in sacks (17) and opponents’ third-down conversion rate (45%), two areas where Smith’s return will help.
Smith faced a harsh reckoning this season for his behavior off the field—convictions for drunken driving and weapons possession. While it will take time for him to prove he has truly made changes off the field, he has a chance to prove himself on the field immediately, rejoining the team for the final stretch of the season.
“We’re in the same position we were in last year,” cornerback Chris Culliver noted, referring to the 6-4 record held by last year’s 49ers squad, which came within one play of the Super Bowl. “And Aldon is balling again, like I know he does.”
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