Justin Smith: The best 3-4 end in the NFL

Chances are, you won't need a whole handful of fingers to fully enumerate the number of guys who've successfully made a transition in recent years from 4-3 defensive end to the same position in a 3-4 front. Then again, you might require an index finger thrust in the air to characterize the status of 49ers veteran Justin Smith among the few defenders who have effectively made the tricky conversion.

Or, frankly, to rank the best all-around "base" 3-4 ends in the league in general, some would suggest.

That's an index finger as in the universal signal for No. 1, the lofty perch with which Smith is regarded by many in the NFL when general managers, personnel men, coaches and pro scouts were surveyed the past couple weeks on top 3-4 ends.

"There are a lot of differences, and there are times it hasn't always been easy, but it's worked out pretty good overall," Smith told The Sports Xchange earlier this week while discussing the switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4 scheme in which he is currently thriving with the 49ers.

Smith played in a standard 4-3 set during his first seven seasons in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals from 2001-2007, recording 90 tackles or more in each of his final five seasons there and also registering 6.5 sacks or more five times.

That persuaded the 49ers to entice Smith to San Francisco as their top prize in 2008 free agency with a six-year, $45 million deal that included $20 million guaranteed. It has been money well spent. Smith has been worth every penny as the dynamic cornerstone of the team's dominant defensive front seven.

"There are a lot of ins and outs of the 3-4 that I didn't know when I came here," Smith said, "but I picked up a knowledge of the scheme and, after four seasons, I think I've reached a comfort level with it. It's going pretty well."

Smith can say that again. At midseason, he's a strong candidate as the team's defensive MVP on a unit that has several players enjoying standout seasons.

The ever-modest 11th-year veteran is a throwback who was raised on his father's cattle ranch in Missouri and who is more apt to wear cowboy boots than wingtips. Smith's nickname among 49ers friends, in fact, is "Cowboy."

Smith credits San Francisco defensive line coach Jim Tomsula – who served as the 49er's interim head coach for the final game last season – for abetting in the transition. And he noted several times during a 20-minute telephone interview that the San Francisco staff and his teammates on the unit have been terrific in conjuring up blueprints and playing them well.

But Smith, who never played a single snap in the 3-4 or manned the five-technique position during his tenure in Cincinnati, is an intense, diligent, hard-driven player with little patience for learning curves, who has done a lot of the "heavy lifting" on his own as well.

He talks about the "vibe" he discerned in Tomsula during his free agent visit in 2008, but Smith provided considerable verve to the 49ers in his first three seasons with the franchise, and clearly during the team's 2011 resurgence.

A Pro Bowl performer in each of the past two seasons, Smith was named both times to the NFC all-star roster as an interior lineman. On their roster, and in play-by-play documents from their games, the 49ers designate Smith as a tackle.

And there may be some quibble among a few personnel guys as to whether the former Missouri star is really a traditional five-technique end. But most agree that Smith, even though he sometimes sinks further inside, is a 3-4 end in the San Francisco scheme, where he aligns to the right of nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga .

And, as such, the former first-round pick has posted big numbers. And garnered big props, too.

The resuscitation of the career of quarterback Alex Smith and the performance of rookie first-round outside linebacker Aldon Smith have been big reasons for the 6-1 start the 49ers will take into Sunday's road game against the Washington Redskins.

But no one should overlook Justin Smith's contribution. And nobody is, particularly those around the 49ers.

At 6-foot-4 and 285 pounds, Smith often is going up against offensive linemen that outweigh him by dozens of pounds or more. But he wears them down with his bullish strength, stamina and high-motor intensity.

Smith also was athletic enough to make the defensive play of the season for the 49ers, chasing down Philadelphia wide receiver Jeremy Maclin from behind in the waning moments of San Francisco's 24-23 upset of the Eagles in early October.

Smith stripped Maclin – who had taken the ball well into field-goal range after catching a pass on the play – and the 49ers recovered the fumble, securing a comeback from a 20-point deficit in the third quarter. It was a play that inspired the entire San Francisco sideline and vaulted the 49ers to their excellent start.

Tomsula and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio have lauded Smith's play, and the latter has referred to him as "a monster."

Said retired Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca, who faced Smith in stints with Pittsburgh, the New York Jets, and Arizona: "He always plays with a (big) motor. ... The guy is relentless. I'm not sure until the last few years he was appreciated enough, but now he's getting his due. He's good."

Make that, really good.

There was a time, before injuries wrecked his last three seasons, when Aaron Smith of Pittsburgh was widely regarded as the NFL's top overall 3-4 end. Even without all the injuries, it's likely the Steelers' star would have been eclipsed by now by a player with the same common surname, and who is perhaps even more uncommonly good.

In Smith's first three seasons with the 49ers, he averaged slightly more than 100 tackles according to San Francisco coaching statistics, an outlandish number for a defensive lineman in any scheme. Twice in those two years, the 32-year-old Smith registered 100 or more stops.

By design, linemen at any position in the three-man front are fully expected to stop the run as the first order of business. They are, almost by definition, afterthoughts in the pass rush, often coming off the field on third down. The outside linebackers, who function as rush-ends on passing downs, are counted on to press the pocket from the edge.

But Smith is a rarity, a 3-4 "base" lineman who can also rush the passer.

Smith had 21.5 sacks in his first three seasons with the 49ers, actually averaging more than he did in his seven Bengals' campaigns (6.2). His career-high 8.5 sacks last season were the most in the league by a 3-4 end. No 3-4 end this season has more than the 4.5 sacks Smith has posted through seven outings. He rang up five or more sacks in all but one of his first 10 seasons.

"I don't care who you are, or what position you play, it always feels good to sack the quarterback," Smith said. "You're really helping your team. I mean, it never gets old. The mentality of getting to the quarterback, it's always going to be the same."

Given his lack of experience in the 3-4, there was considerable head-scratching in the league in 2008 when San Francisco targeted Smith as a free-agent priority and then showered him with the big money.

Then-49ers coach Mike Nolan played a 3-4 and, as noted previously, Smith possessed zero practical experience in the scheme, even though he had dropped and covered at various times during his years in Cincinnati.

Smith pointed out this week that he was actually recruited by the 49ers as a linebacker, and lined up there in camp, but the experiment certainly did not last long.

With the Bengals, there seemed to always be the feeling that Smith was a very solid defender, but not much more than that.

The Marvin Lewis staff respected Smith, but some of the coaches felt that, as the fourth overall player selected in the 2001 draft, he was not as impactful as a player chosen so high should be. Privately, there were Cincinnati coaches who felt Smith was perhaps over-drafted.

Credit the San Francisco personnel department not only for assessing his value, but for correctly projecting that Smith could make the schematic switch. And, of course, Smith for making the 49ers' brass look awfully good.

The job description may have changed some, but Smith hasn't.

"I guess the biggest thing," Smith said, "is the different combination of blocks you have coming at you. People throw a lot of stuff at you. You really have to use your eyes more (than in a 4-3).

"Playing end in Cincinnati, it was all day going up against the left tackle, trying to figure out how to beat the guy. There was a kind of sameness to it. It was pretty much you and him. Here, depending on how you're shaded, it's different. Things can change from play to play."

One thing that hasn't changed, even with the schematic transition, is Smith's ability to line up and play every week, regardless of injuries (most notably an elbow injury that slowed him at different times in the past).

Entering this week's game in Washington, Smith has started 162 consecutive games, and the only game he has ever missed in his career was as a rookie, because of a prolonged contract negotiation.

And Smith doesn't just show up for work. Unlike most 3-4 linemen, he virtually plays every down, including passing snaps. In 2009, Smith participated in roughly 88 percent of San Francisco's defensive snaps. Last year, it was 75 percent.

And this season, the rate is above 90 percent. The 49ers just can't keep Smith off the field, as if they'd ever really want that to happen.

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