Edge rusher Aldon Smith figures to play a key role for the 49ers' defense in Sunday's NFC championship game as it deals with the dual threats of the Seahawks' conventional, Marshawn Lynch-fueled running game and the scrambling ability of quarterback Russell Wilson.
The good news for the 49ers is Smith has been his disruptive self of late, with head coach Jim Harbaugh going so far this week as to say that opponents trying to contain Smith with a solo blocker are "whistling Dixie."
"That's the way he's playing right now," Harbaugh said. "Therefore he's getting quite a bit of double-team chips, help from the backs and the tight ends. And he's really playing well."
After going through the final six games of last season -- postseason included -- with no sacks, Smith registered 1 ½ in the wild-card round against the Packers before being held without one last week in Carolina. Still, he was part of a defense that held the Panthers to 93 rushing yards and didn't allow mobile quarterback Cam Newton (10 rushes, 54 yards) to cause too much havoc with his legs.
Smith today said he feels "a lot more healthy" than at this time last season -- likely due in part to his missing five games earlier in the year while attending an out-of-state treatment facility following his second arrest for DUI in as many years. Smith returned in Week 10 against Carolina and was eased back into his normal role on the defense.
Harbaugh was asked this week about Smith's performance and behavior since rejoining the team -- both of which have been by most accounts very good -- and had this to say:
"I feel very good for Aldon and he's carried the water, the biggest share himself," he said. "There have been a lot of people that have helped. He's got a great family, his mother, father, A-plus-plus. And he's handling his business. We all tend to forget that the reason we got smart is because we learned from our mistakes. And that's how you get smart, by learning from your mistakes."
Smith struck a similar tone today when asked how far he has come since his midseason hiatus.
"I'd say I had some adversity and battled through it at the beginning of the year," he said. "And it means a lot just to be back here a game away from the Super Bowl, that's all I'm really focused on right now.
"Everybody makes mistakes," he continued. "It's just learning from them and moving toward the right direction, and that's what I've been doing."
Smith credited the 49ers with welcoming him back into the fold, something linebacker NaVorro Bowman said was made easier by Smith's attitude since.
"Anytime a guy leaves a team, you expect a guy to come back and work hard and show he missed it and he's willing to work back to where he was," Bowman said. "And he's done all those things. I wouldn't say he's a different person, I'd just say he understands his situation and he's done a great job handling it."
On the field, Smith has been one of the few 49ers who has played well in Seattle. He had two sacks in the 49ers' 29-3 loss to the Seahawks in Week 2. He said today he expects to see more double-teams Sunday, and that: "If it happens, it happens. I'm ready to deal with it and keep getting pressure on the quarterback."
With Wilson, that task falls to the entire front seven. Smith said it will be important for the 49ers' pass rush to "make sure we're not rushing as individuals, but collectively," as Wilson is athletic enough to extend plays with his legs and exploit breakdowns in the pressure. The 49ers did a good job of that against Newton, a week after holding Aaron Rodgers mostly in check in Green Bay, and Smith said that's a product of the defense jelling at the right time.
"We're coming together, we're all clicking and we've all got a feeling for each other and how one another does their jobs," he said. "So the sky's the limit for us -- we've just got to keep putting games together back-to-back."
-- Matthew Kawahara