It was apparent at his very first practice with the San Francisco 49ers. And it’s stuck with him through 23 regular season games.
From his first practice sessions of training camp in 2011, it was clear then that opposing tackles would have trouble with Smith’s 83 and 7/8-inch wingspan.
It’s even more apparent in 2012 where the second-year linebacker leads the 49ers with 5.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles-for-loss through the team’s first seven games.
“He uses it to his advantage,” Jim Harbaugh said on Thursday. “There have been several times where you think you’re out-flanked by a runner or a quarterback scrambling out of the pocket and Aldon has the speed, quickness and arm length to get those plays turned back in or stopped.”
With 32 tackles, Smith ranks seventh in tackling on a stacked 49ers defensive unit.
“He’s been consistently good,” Harbaugh said of the pass-rusher with 19.5 sacks in 23 career regular season games. “I think that’s something that really stands out. The ability he has with his wingspan, I know they talk a lot about that in basketball, but it sure shows up in his play.”
Smith has registered 17 quarterback hits and 26 pressures this season, his first year as an every-down outside linebacker.
The added playing time, however, has only helped Smith’s pass-rushing ability.
Instead of feeling fatigued late in games, Smith feels able to finish the pass-rushes he set up previously in matchups with opposing linemen.
“I play every down now so I get more double-teams than maybe I would have had, but really it’s all football,” Smith said when explaining the changes he’s seeing in 2012. “I can see some teams gaming a little bit towards me, but it’s the same thing basically.”
Smith’s stellar pass-rushing late in games is a big reason San Francisco is 5-0 this year when leading after three quarters. The perfect record is certainly a sign of Smith’s pass-rushing presence in the final 15 minutes of play.
Smith’s next four-quarter effort comes this Monday in a nationally televised contest against an NFC West rival, the Arizona Cardinals, who sit one game behind the first-place 49ers.
“It’s a big game, a Monday Night game against a division opponent,” said Smith, who’s registered 6.0 of his 19.5 career sacks against NFC West foes.
Smith and the rest of San Francisco’s pass rush (Ranked t-24th with 11 sacks this season) will face an Arizona offensive line that has allowed a league-high 35 sacks, nine more than second-place Green Bay.
“Really we’re going to compete (against) whoever we play,” Smith said. “We play the Cardinals on Monday, so we’re preparing for them. We compete no matter who we play against.
“Our biggest thing is we’ve got to capitalize on our opportunities and get back there, make some plays and make some sacks.”
Cardinals starting quarterback Kevin Kolb is still feeling the effects of being sacked a league-high 27 times this season. Detached ribs will likely keep Kolb out of the starting lineup once again in favor of John Skelton, the same quarterback who beat the 49ers in Arizona last year 21-19.
It was also Harbaugh’s first loss against the NFC West. The 49ers coach improved to 6-1 in the division after last week’s 13-6 win over Seattle.
In order to exact revenge on last year’s defeat, pressuring Skelton while limiting the production of star wideout Larry Fitzgerald looms large for the 49ers defense.
The matchup will have a big impact on whether or not the 49ers will maintain top standing among two defensive categories – San Francisco ranks first in total defense (272.3 yards per game) and pass defense (173.4 yards per game).
“We all take pride in it,” Smith said of the team’s pass defense ranking. “It’s all of us working together, safeties covering, corners covering, everybody doing their job and then us getting back there and making plays. Everybody making plays, working together, leads to that.”
The 49ers only have 11 sacks as a unit this season, but Smith believes it to be a result of quarterbacks getting rid of the ball.
That said, it’s not stopping Smith from trying to bring down every quarterback he faces.
“Selfishly we’d all like to have more sacks but I think teams are a little more prepared for us than they were last year,” the No. 7 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft said. “Quarterbacks are getting the ball out faster; all in all, we’re hurrying throws and creating a lot of pressure, so we’re doing our job.”