Cardinals’ protection leaves chances for 49ers to rack up sacks

Getty Images File PhotoBring the heat: Aldon Smith (99) is leading the 49ers in sacks with 5½

The pass rusher in Aldon Smith is getting a little more excited than usual this week.

That’s a feeling spreading throughout the San Francisco defense as the 49ers prepare for Monday night’s game against the Arizona Cardinals, the only NFC West team to beat the Niners during coach Jim Harbaugh’s two seasons here.

Despite another strong season from Smith, the 49ers aren’t sacking opposing quarterbacks at the same rate they did last year. But that hasn’t prevented San Francisco from leading the NFL in both total defense and passing defense.

There could be plenty of opportunities for sacks against the Cardinals, who have struggled all season to protect quarterbacks Kevin Kolb and John Skelton.

That pair has been dropped 35 times in seven games, by far the most sacks allowed by any team in the league.

Skelton, who will start Monday’s game, was sacked seven times in last week’s loss to the Minnesota Vikings. That’s something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Smith, who set a franchise rookie record last season with 14 sacks and leads the team with 5½ this year.

“We’d all like to have more sacks,” Smith said Thursday. “Seeing other people have success getting sacks, I mean that’s what I do and that’s what we do.”

Smith has half of San Francisco’s entire sack total. The 49ers have only three sacks in their past three games and rank 23rd in the NFL in sacks per play — the team’s lowest standing in 12 defensive categories recorded by the league.

The 49ers had 42 sacks in 2011, and the havoc created by their pass rush was a key to the team’s defensive success. Smith burst onto the scene with an impressive rookie season, but the 49ers also got a consistent push up front from their bookend defensive tackles, Justin Smith (7½ sacks last year) and Ray McDonald (5½).

Justin Smith and McDonald have combined for only a half sack so far this season. Outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks (three sacks) is the only 49er besides Aldon Smith with more than one sack this year.

But the lack of sacks belies the strength of San Francisco’s pass rush. The pressure up front has been good with Justin Smith and McDonald combining for 47 quarterback hits and 68 pressures.

“We’re ranked [first] in pass defense, and pass rush is part of pass defense,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said.

“So, although we don’t have the sack numbers, which a lot of people want to sink their teeth into, that’s not the measure of a good pass rush. And right now to this point, I haven’t seen pass rush as being a weakness for us.”

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