Last season with both Justin and Aldon Smith Healthy the 49ers defense thrived and stood out as one of the best in the league. Aldon was on a tear and when healthy is considered one of the more dynamic pass rushers in the game. Justin is considered a force and one of the more dominant and respected football players whenever on the field. Both compliment each other with their command for attention due to exceptional play against the run (Justin) and exceptional pass rushing skills (Aldon). With Justin forcing double teams and Aldon demanding them they set the tone for 49ers defense, allowing the 49er linebackers to be on their assignments and fill the gaps against the run, and putting pressure on opposing Quarterbacks allowing the secondary to be on their jobs and clean up mistakes often made due to the push up front.
All of that changed when Justin Smith partially tore his triceps in week 15, as Aldon Smith faced more double and even triple teams without the push from the "cowboy" on the other end. Aldon Smith began to receive harsh criticism because of his lack of performance without Justin. Many mainstream journalists and reporters began to publicize Aldon was nothing without Justin, and Aldon's play on the field backed that talk up. Having recorded 19.5 sack in the first 14 weeks many believed Aldon would break the NFL sack record. All of that changed week 15 when Justin Smith was taken out of the game against New England suffering the torn triceps injury, as Aldon did not record a sack for the last 6 weeks of the season. Even when Justin returned he was not the same and neither was the 49er defense.
Now what is interesting about all of this is the recent news of Aldon Smith undergoing surgery for a torn labrum. An injury that seriously affects the push and upper body strength of an individual, and it definitely affected Aldon Smith's play, especially in the playoffs. As the injury nagged on and made him look like half the player, and in fact Aldon was half the player. It was clear in the Super Bowl he was not the same, often looking numb on one side, providing very little pass rush. Justin also played hurt, but the difference was we knew about his injury. Aldon had been listed on the injury report during the season but many, including Aldon were reporting it as a "stinger." Now we know it was much more than that and the two Smith's at half strength could not provide the force nor the push up front that had many pinning the 49ers as the best defense in the land at the beginning and midway through the season. This created a Domino effect for the rest of the defense, because with very little pass rush the opposing Quarterbacks were granted more time to pick apart the 49er secondary. Also with the "cowboy" off his horse at half strength he was not able to dominate up front and command two blockers, leaving Willis and Bowman for clean up work.
The 49er organization's offseason objective is to now build upon an already talented defense through free agency and the draft. All in hopes of retuning them to the big dance and making the San Francisco 49ers stronger as a whole. In the playoffs It was the 49er offense which picked up the slack for a struggling defense, but in the end the lack of push up front that affected the outcome of the biggest game of the year for the 49ers, the Super Bowl. Granted their was some blown coverages in the secondary, but I truly believe with two healthy Smiths the outcome would have been different, with the 49ers slamming the dominos and raising the trophy.
-Rob C. Lara