When the National Football League’s sack leader says he truly enjoys playing in nationally televised primetime games – you have to take him at his word.
After all, 49ers linebacker
Thanks to consistent outings in just his second season, his first year as an every-down player, Smith leads the league with 19.5 sacks in 14 games. Furthermore, Smith’s incentive to play well on the big stage is highhanded now that he’s 3.5 sacks from breaking Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record set in 2001.
To put San Francisco’s young linebacker’s recent stretch in greater perspective, Smith’s totaled 14.0 sacks over the past six weeks, the same number totaled by this year’s Jacksonville Jaguars defense.
Smith knows he’s competing with the world watching his every move and in actuality; he wouldn’t want it any other way.
In Smith’s mind, primetime games bring out everyone’s passion for the sport.
“I think everybody gets up for it,” Smith explained on Thursday. “We’ve played under the lights in high school, ‘Friday Night Lights’ and I think that’s where everybody kind of got their real love for football. Just being back in that atmosphere, I think everyone still has that childhood in them, so we all get amped for it.”
It also signaled a show was about to take place.
“Under the lights,” Smith said, “you knew it was showtime. It’s just that feeling you get again from being under that spotlight.
Smith doesn’t need much more motivation than to consider the time of Sunday’s game against the Patriots and the consistent production of San Francisco’s Week 15 road opponent.
It also helps that the 49ers’ top-ranked scoring defense (14.2 points per game) will take on the challenge of matching up against New England’s top-ranked scoring offense (36.3 points per game).
Smith will look to disrupt the production of MVP candidate Tom Brady, who leads the NFL with a 104.2 quarterback rating.
It’s a challenge Smith is embracing as the days get closer to Sunday.
Even if the Patriots look to push tempo with no-huddle looks to the 49ers defense, Smith believes San Francisco’s top-notch defense is prepared for it.
“Really, I think if you’re not in shape by this time, you’ve got a problem,” Smith said, before pointing out that Brady does an excellent job of getting New England back to the line of scrimmage to run quick plays. “We’ve just got to get the calls communicated and be ready for the next snap.”
The 49ers have fared well against some of the league’s top passers, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning and Drew Brees, included. San Francisco has held opposing passers to a 77.0 quarterback rating.
“We’ve played good offenses before, this isn’t the first offense we’ve played before that has talent,” Smith said. “Tape shows what happened, we just have to put it back on tape again.”
Because Smith’s chasing NFL immortality, the focus on his production will be talked about at length. It’s already started in NBC’s pre-game promotion. Smith joins Brady as the standout players represented from each team.
The 49ers linebacker said he found out of the TV promo graphics from a friend who sent him a picture.
“I just had one word,” Smith relayed to the media, “‘Wow.’
“I didn’t know what to say.”
“It’s Tom Brady,” Smith said. “He’s won Super Bowls… Me, I just got here.”
Although Smith downplayed his recent stardom, the matchup he’s truly focused on is the one with Patriots left tackle Nate Solder.
The two are actually quite familiar with each other. The No. 7 and 17 overall picks in the 2011 NFL Draft faced off in college. Smith’s Missouri team defeated Solder’s Colorado club 36-17 back in 2009, Smith’s freshman season.
The future 49ers linebacker registered 3.0 sacks and four tackles-for-loss that day.
“I guess I know who I’m going against,” Smith said wryly. “I played him in college and I know who he is.”
Smith, however, knows he’s facing an improved player much like himself.
Brady’s only been sacked 20 times this season; a credit to Solder’s blind-side protection.
Smith’s been brushing up on current tape on Solder, leaving the college film behind.
“I haven’t watched that game in a long time,” Smith said. “That was a long time ago, but I was able to get past him and create pressure back there.”
So will Solder remember him when the lights come on Sunday night?
“We’ll see after the game,” Smith said.
Smith has good intentions for his sacks. He plans on donating $5,099 per sack to the Boys and Girls clubs of San Francisco and the Peninsula. As it stands, Smith has already raised $99,430.50.