NEW ORLEANS - Through 13 games of the regular season, Aldon Smith was a one-man wrecking ball.
The second-year 49ers linebacker was wreaking havoc on opposing offenses, using his lightning-quick speed and underrated power to muscle past linemen and drag down quarterbacks with ease. In all, he had 19½ sacks, well on his way to eclipsing the NFL’s all-time record.
But fast-forward to Super Bowl XLVII week and Smith hasn’t sniffed a sack since. The 6-foot-4, 258-pounder has gone 0-for the three regular season and two playoff games since.
“I’m getting double-teamed a lot, triple-teamed at times, and then the quarterbacks are getting the ball out fast,” Smith said Monday trying to explain the difference.
While the sack totals have dissipated, his impact hasn’t in the eyes of the San Francisco organization. Coach Jim Harbaugh unveiled Monday that Smith was voted the Bill Walsh Award winner by players and coaches. The award goes to the 49ers’ MVP each season.
“I come in my second year and I get the MVP, it means a lot,” Smith said.
Smith has still been able to make an impact the past five games, but there is a clear link to the downturn in sacks: Justin Smith. The defensive lineman suffered a torn triceps against the New England Patriots on Dec. 16, the start of Aldon Smith’s sack-less streak. Justin Smith missed the team’s final two regular season games and has played both playoff games with a brace. And while it’s tough to fully measure what type of impact the injury is having on the rest of the defense, Aldon Smith acknowledges he and Justin Smith work best as a tandem.
“We feed off each other,” he said. “We have a rhythm that we just developed together.”
Harbaugh, for one, warns not to read too much in to sack totals, but rather look at the totality of how a player performs in a game.
“Even though we don’t have the sacks there, that low hanging fruit for people to see, they don’t always see the things that Justin is doing or Aldon is doing game in and game out,” Harbaugh said.
One thing is clear, sacks or no sacks, the 49ers’ chances for a victory on Sunday in New Orleans could largely depend on their ability to put pressure on Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.
The Ravens’ passing attack has become extremely explosive down the stretch, leaning on receivers Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith and tight end Dennis Pitta. Flacco has thrown eight TDs in the postseason and no interceptions, completing a multitude of big plays along the way. When you splash in the versatility of running back Ray Rice hauling in passes out of the backfield, it can be a potent elixir for any defense to handle.
“I have to play my game,” Aldon Smith said. “I have to do what I do well to be successful, so my goal is to just go out there and play.”