On Monday night, San Francisco held Washington to six points and recorded four sacks while making it virtually impossible for Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III to get comfortable. The Niners' talented front seven dominated the line of scrimmage and two former Missouri defensive linemen drafted 10 years apart continue to wreak havoc on offensive lines.
Here are the paths that right defensive tackle/defensive end Justin Smith and outside linebacker Aldon Smith took from Columbia, Mo., to San Francisco. Cincinnati took Justin with the fourth overall pick in 2001 and he signed with the 49ers as a free agent in 2008. San Francisco drafted Aldon with the seventh overall pick in 2011.
At 34 years old, Justin Smith is still a physical freak and one of the better two-gap defenders in the NFL. He controls blockers one-on-one and he looks to occupy double teams in order to free up the rangy and instinctive linebackers who play behind him.
While he appears to have lost a step, he ran well coming out of college and he plays with an excellent motor so he still has good range. He's also a physical pass-rusher who pushes the pocket and again he's willing to stay engaged with blockers to free up his teammates on line stunts and blitzes. Finally, he's versatile, showing the ability to line up on the inside or the outside.
Meanwhile, Aldon Smith quickly developed into one of the best pass-rushers in the league and has the numbers to prove it. He has 6.5 sacks in six games this year and has 40 sacks in 38 games during his first three seasons. His quick first step and ability to bend the edge are great assets, but he's as much of a threat to work back inside. He shows above-average lateral quickness, balance and hand speed when he works inside on a stunt or just crosses the offensive tackle's face. Washington left offensive tackle Trent Williams, the fourth overall pick in 2010, got beaten to the inside on one of Aldon Smith's two sacks last night. Plus Aldon Smith has the closing speed to punish quarterbacks when he gets a clean shot.
When we look at the 2014 draft, there are two Missouri defensive line prospects in defensive ends Kony Ealy and Michael Sam. Ealy shares some similarities with Justin Smith and to a lesser degree Sam shares some similarities with Aldon Smith, but it's important to be clear here. The Smiths were rare talents coming out of college and worth their first round selections. While they can contribute at the next level, Ealy and Sam don't fit into that mold. In fact, Ealy projects as a Day 2 pick and Sam projects as a Day 3 pick.
Listed at 6-foot-5, 275 pounds Ealy is stout and sets the edge against the run when he lines up in the outside. He’s still developing as an edge rusher and it’s unlikely he runs as well as Justin Smith when he works out for teams but he is quick for his size and like Smith he can slide inside where his initial burst and active hands give interior offensive linemen problems.
This Thanksgiving weekend, Ealy will face off against the top offensive tackle on our board in Aggies' left offensive tackle Jake Matthews when he lines up at end. Matthews is an above average run and pass blocker with a strong punch and good balance. It should be a good litmus test for Ealy who could improve his draft stock with a strong showing.
Listed at 6-2, 255 pounds Sam, who has 10 sacks, and a chance to break Missouri’s single season sack-record held by Aldon Smith which is 11.5. It’s also worth noting that Justin Smith’s held that record until Aldon Smith broke it 2011. Sam makes the most of his quick first step and low center of gravity by getting under offensive tackles. He then extends his arms and bends inside or pushes the offensive tackles back. His effort rushing the passer also stands out.
As a run defender, he has long arms for his frame and he has the upper body strength to keep bigger blockers off his frame. On the other hand he can get off some blocks quicker and he can give some ground when he doesn’t keep his pads down.
Sam like Aldon Smith could make the transition to outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme or play defensive end in a base 4-3 but there are key differences. He doesn’t have Smith’s frame or length and he’s not expected to run as well when he works out for teams. He’s also not as fluid or as explosive working back inside.
Ealy and Sam face the tough task of trying to contain Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and there's a trip to the SEC Championship game on the line. Their body control and rush-lane discipline should be tested and it will be interesting to see how they fare.