Forty-niners outside linebacker Aldon Smith missed five games earlier this season (weeks four through 9) while undergoing treatment for substance abuse. He returned in week 10 looking slow and out of shape in San Francisco's 10-9 home loss to Carolina. However, the 2011 NFL defensive rookie of the year and 2012 Pro Bowler has turned it on the last few weeks, looking more and more like his old dominant self.
When a team ranked 28th in total offense gets their No. 1 receiver back from a season long injury, of course his return will dominate local headlines. Such has been the case with the San Francisco 49ers and star receiver Michael Crabtree. Despite missing the first 11 games of the season, Crabtree has looked as solid as ever since returning to action.
That said, Crabtree's emergence out of the gate has overshadowed another huge piece of the 49ers puzzle.
When outside linebacker Aldon Smith checked himself into a substance abuse program prior to week 4, he left the as the 49ers sack leader with 4.5 sacks. Yet during his absence the 49ers won five games in a row, carried in large part by their defense.
Needless to say, Smith's presence on the field didn't seem to be missed much.
And during his first couple weeks back, Smith didn't look like the same player. He was frequently removed from the field unless it was a clear passing situation for the opposing offense. And while he managed to record two sacks in the blowout victory over Washington, his overall performances against the Panthers, Redskins and the Saints left much to be desired.
But with solid performances these last two weeks against Seattle and Tampa Bay, Aldon Smith looks to be back in full form.
While he wasn't able to record a sack against the Seahawks, Smith has been seeing more and more snaps as the weeks go by. There is no question he has been able to help open up lanes for teammates with offensive lines having to key in on his presence.
It's also no surprise that Justin Smith and the rest of the 49ers front seven has looked stronger lately as a group. Justin and Aldon didn't get the nick name the "Smith brothers" just because of identical last names. The two often run stunts up front on the same side of the line and when both are going strong, they are a tough tandem to block.
On Sunday against Tampa Bay Aldon picked up two sacks while Justin registered one of his own. For the majority of the afternoon, the Buccs had trouble keeping the 49ers pass rush at bay.
However, on the two Tampa Bay scoring drives, the 49ers pass rush didn't get nearly as much pressure and the Buccaneers passing game shredded the 49ers secondary. Considering that rookie free safety Eric Reid is arguably San Francisco's best cover guy, the 49ers obviously aren't great in coverage.
Cornerbacks Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and Tramaine Brock are all talented but none of them are what you would call a shut down corner.
For as stout as the 49ers defense has been in recent years, especially with Jim Harbaugh and Vic Fangio at the helm, there is a formula to beating them. Last year's Super Bowl is a great example of how teams can attack the defense through the air. If the front seven isn't getting consistent pressure, the 49ers secondary can be picked apart.
Fortunately for 49ers fans, beating the 49ers through the air is easier said than done. The 49ers boast a front seven that is as dominant as any in football when Aldon is at the top of his game. And right now, if he's not at the top, he's certainly darn close.
While San Francisco has yet to clinch a playoff spot, barring a major collapse, the Red & Gold will be in the dance for the third straight year.
If they're to get back to and win the Super Bowl, Aldon Smith will be as big of a reason for their success as any of his teammates.