SANTA CLARA — Aldon Smith might not have the intimidating and impressive sack numbers of past seasons in his abbreviated year, yet he judges his play by more than just flattening opposing quarterbacks.
Smith believes he has done well applying pressure since returning from a nine-game suspension that has made it tough for him to gain much momentum on an ever-changing, beat-up 49ers defense.
“I've been making plays, haven't been getting sacks but getting pressure,” Smith said. “I feel good. Still making plays, still making it hard for the quarterback to throw and creating havoc in the backfield.”
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who called Smith “rusty” when he returned last month, has spoken of Smith's inconsistencies on the pass rush at times. Pressuring the quarterback has regularly been a problem, and the 49ers (7-7) will have to contend with San Diego's Philip Rivers on Saturday night.
Smith has 12 tackles and two sacks in five games, four starts.
“There's a lot more to the job than just sacks. I mean, setting an edge, drops into coverage, physical against the run in the tackles,” coach Jim Harbaugh said Thursday. “I think he's done a very good job and (it has) been good for everybody to have him back out there.”
Finishing with a winning season, not chasing a Super Bowl ring as so many of the 49ers planned, is what the season has come to with two games left.
“It is different, this is my first year not being in the playoffs after having an extra couple games,” Smith said. “So, it's different, but take advantage of this time and when it's time to start, be ready.”
Smith missed the first nine games this season for violations of the NFL's substance-abuse and personal-conduct policies. That came after a five-game absence last year to undergo treatment following his September 2013 DUI arrest. The 25-year-old Smith was also arrested April 13 at Los Angeles International Airport. Police said Smith was randomly selected for a secondary screening and became uncooperative with the process, telling a TSA agent that he had a bomb. No charges were filed.
He hopes to finally put all of that behind him. Away from the field, Smith said he believes he's now on the right track.
“I feel like I've done what I needed to do,” Smith said.
The 49ers picked up Smith's option for 2015, though they will certainly be no-nonsense when it comes to his behavior — or anybody else's for that matter — going forward.
“We talk to our players often about respect, accountability, character, what that means,” general manager Trent Baalke said Wednesday. “We're a big part of this community, and we expect a lot from our players. We have high expectations. And, for the most part, they live up to those expectations. In certain instances, they don't. And when they don't, you try to deal with it and help them the best you can. Sometimes, we have been judged to maybe give them too much leeway. I think that's a little bit harsh, but at the same time I understand that because I understand what the logo means, the shield means, both at the NFL level and the San Francisco 49ers.”
Smith, for one, hopes to be playing alongside fearsome defensive lineman Justin Smith for another year. Justin Smith hasn't said whether he will return for a 15th NFL season in 2015.
“I just hope we can end it on a strong note. It's good to play with him and if he's here next year, that's good,” Aldon Smith said. “If he's not, then I'm sure he'll be happy retired.”
Fangio has joked about flying to Missouri to talk Justin Smith into another year.
“If I was the D-coordinator, I would, too. … If I was Vic Fangio, I'd do the same thing,” safety Antoine Bethea said. “That's his decision with his family. Obviously whatever he decides, helluva career, lot of respect for him as a player, as a man.”
Aldon and Justin Smith are two players opponents must consider on every snap, even with all the other mixing and matching through injuries on the defense.
“I still think the two Smiths, those guys are awesome players,” Rivers said.
Notes: Harbaugh expects RB Frank Gore to play Saturday after he has responded well following a concussion last week. … Tony Jerod-Eddie is slated to start in place of DL Ray McDonald, who was released Wednesday amid a sexual assault investigation.