SEATTLE — On Aldon Smith's first sack of the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger on Monday night, the San Francisco 49ers' rookie edge rusher benefited greatly from a sight next to him that no offensive line wants to see – defensive tackle Justin Smith lined up in a flex (off the line) position, in a stand-up set. At the snap, Justin Smith got what he generally gets from opposing linemen — an immediate double team inside. As Steelers center Doug Legursky and left guard Trai Essex prepared to take the veteran on, Aldon Smith had a one-on-one matchup with left tackle Max Starks, which ended predictably enough — with Roethlisberger on the ground after Aldon Smith snapped Starks back and beat him outside.
On the second sack of Roethlisberger, which was shared by Aldon Smith and lineman Ray McDonald, Justin Smith and McDonald performed a tackle/tackle stunt that sent the line both ways at once, and once again gave young Aldon the matchup advantage. On young Aldon's second solo sack of the evening, it was Justin playing the role of the three-tech (inside off the guard) tackle, plugging up the Steelers' left interior line while young Aldon came inside in the kind of end-tackle stunt the 49ers are certainly hoping to torment enemy offenses with for the next half-decade or so.
And while Aldon Smith very much fits the prototype of the young pass-rush specialist (his 13.0 sacks, just 1.5 short of Javon Kearse's NFL rookie record, tell that tale as well), it's almost impossible to get a bead on Justin Smith. From play to play, the elder Smith could line up just about anywhere — and take somebody's head off from wherever he stands.
"[Aldon] does a great job coming off of the stunt," 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said on Tuesday. "Starts up the field, then loops back inside. He's getting a great lane from Ray and from Justin. Those guys are really, when you dissect what's happening, those two guys are doing a tremendous job. A lot of credit to Aldon, too. He comes in and is able to beat the defender in a very tight space. Athletically, contort his body in split-second decisions. He's getting a lot of credit for that and deservedly so."
Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, who has some unique defensive linemen of his own, was focused more on Justin Smith when he talked about the key man in the line the Seahawks will face at home on Saturday.
"He's the guy where you can't miss him when they play," Carroll said. "He's so tough and he's so aggressive. I'm sure he's helped Aldon. I'm sure he's helped him grow fast and understand what it takes to play in this league because he just does not stop. He's a tremendous motor guy. Everybody loves a guy like that and he's a fantastic playmaker. The fact that he does move around, it's problematic. We have to find that guy."
"That guy" is enjoying his 11th NFL season, and he's been a model of consistency throughout. He's missed one game in his entire career, and only fallen below the 5.0-sack total one season in all that time — 2007, the year before he left Cincinnati as a free agent and signed with the 49ers. His 6.5 sacks in 2011 are impressive for a guy who plays inside a lot and always commands extra attention, but the overall quarterback pressure he brings is simply unreal -- last year, according to Football Outsiders' metrics, he hurried opposing quarterbacks 28.5 times, tying him with Dallas' DeMarcus Ware as one of the most dominant demolition experts in the league.
There's been a lot of inconsistency in the 49ers' organization since Smith came aboard, which makes the team's current 11-3 record and fight for pole position in the NFC playoff race so rewarding. Because, make no mistake about it — through all the changes in San Francisco's defense from then to now, Smith has been the constant. The only "un-constant" is his role — he could be an inside or outside rusher; lined up head-on-head or dropping into coverage. His football acumen allows Smith to do it all at an unusually high level.
"You move around a little bit," he said on Wednesday, when asked the key to creating pressure both inside and on the edge. "I kind of view the three-technique as nothing more than an outside rusher playing inside. That, with a combination of Ray over there and Aldon doing his thing, Ahmad [Brooks] doing his thing as well, it's just been pretty good in that regard."
The difference this year is that the elder Smith and the younger Smith create the kind of dynamic duo the 49ers never really had in the days of underachieving outside pass rushers like Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson. "He's a smart player for being so young. You can change stuff up with him at the line of scrimmage that a lot of guys you can't when they're that young. He really came in and he really studied, he's worked harder every week — he realizes what it takes at this level — and he's gone above and beyond all expectations I believe. He's got an uncanny ability for once he gets inside the line of scrimmage there to bend and twist and knock people around. He's just having a heck of a year."
Yes he is, but that's just one year. To create a career like the one Justin Smith has put together requires different levels of intensity, consistency and commitment. That seems to be the story of the 49ers pass rush this year — while the younger Smith is the star of the show, the elder Smith creates the environment that allows his teammates to succeed.
In every way possible, the old man's still got it.