How good are the 49ers without Justin Smith? Not good. That’s why they lost by 29 to the Seahawks and had some early trouble with the Arizona Cardinals during their final couple games of the regular season.
Luckily for the 49ers, Smith came back and recorded eight tackles in the Divisional Round game against the Green Bay Packers. Plus, he impacted the game in a big way, helping the 49ers get back into the NFC Championship Game for the second time in as many years.
Smith doesn’t get too many sacks, but he allows Aldon Smith, his teammate, to do so. Smith is currently on a sack drought, but he piled up 19.5 in the regular season. He occupies at least one defender every time he rushes, and sometimes two.
Aldon Smith is hungry for sacks, and he knows that for the 49ers to stand a chance against Matt Ryan, arguably a Top 5 quarterback and his receiving weapons (Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White and others), both Smiths need to be able to put pressure on Ryan. Ryan was picked off twice against Seattle, and in one of those two times he was picked off because pressure was coming too fast and he hurried his throw.
The problem definitely won’t be beating an elite team and an elite quarterback, since they have beaten Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees a combined four times this year (with zero losses as well). Brady has Brandon Lloyd, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker, Rodgers has Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and James Jones, and Brees has Marques Colston, Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham. So, they’ve faced some good quarterback-receiver tandems before.
Smith is not concerned about his partially torn triceps, and he will definitely be healthier than he was last week. Atlanta knows that he was a force against Green Bay and they know he will be better, so if they want to give Ryan time, they’ll need to take down Justin Smith.
Ryan has been known to force passes, as he has 16 interceptions in 17 games. Against good defenses, he hasn’t been all that successful either. Ryan has thrown 13 picks in nine games against top 18 defenses, and 10 picks in seven games against top 12 defenses.
However, the Falcons are 8-1 against top 18 defenses and 6-1 against top 12 defenses, partly because Ryan can also shred the defense with lots of touchdowns (35). He will throw for a lot of passing yards as well, and he will get his primary targets the ball. San Francisco’s secondary is decent, but they will have a hard time.
Tarell Brown, Dashon Goldson, Carlos Rogers and the 49ers’ secondary know how to play, and Brown had a great game with an interception and another one taken back by a penalty. Goldson is a great safety, and everyone is capable of making plays in the 49ers’ secondary.
However, Rogers has not had a good year, and no secondary can hold up forever. If Ryan has all day to throw, he will find White, Jones or Gonzalez. But if not, he won’t be able to, and it will take some sacks and pressure from both Smiths.
Justin Smith is not a sack machine, but he will hurry, hit and intimidate the opposing quarterback, in this case Ryan. But he will also allow Aldon Smith to make a play as well as making plays in the running game, and in 14.5 games with Justin Smith, Aldon has 19.5 sacks.
Green Bay tested Smith early to see how he could handle his injury, but he’s going to better this week. If Atlanta does test him early on, he will beat them, because he’ll be playing pretty close to 100 percent. In the NFL, you are never 100 percent, but Smith will be ready for sure.
Colin Kaepernick and the offense are important, but almost everyone is confident that the 49ers will score enough. But for the 49ers to win the game, they will need to stop the Falcons, and they will need to make Atlanta’s wide receivers and the 49ers’ secondary a non-factor.
And while that won’t happen, the only way to minimize the importance of that matchup is having Justin Smith going strong.