SANTA CLARA, Calif. - It could be happening all over again for Aldon Smith.
This time last year, in his third game back from his five-game leave from the 49ers, Smith tortured Washington's offense and Robert Griffin III with two sacks and five quarterback hurries in San Francisco's 27-6 Monday Night road drubbing. Griffin threw for 116 yards.
This season, in his second game back from a nine-game suspension, Smith gets a chance at a repeat performance against Washington (3-7) Sunday. San Francisco (6-4) plays Griffin in Week 12 for the second straight season. Both teams are entering the game with the same record they had in 2013.
Smith was allowed to remain at the team's facility as apart of an agreement between the NFL Players Association and the league. He partook in meetings and worked out vigorously. Last year, his football work was minimal while attending an in-patient treatment facility following his DUI arrest the Friday morning before September's loss to the Colts.
The difference in his play coming back this season was stark.
In his debut last week, Smith joined rookie Aaron Lynch and lineman Ray McDonald to hound Giants quarterback Eli Manning for much of the afternoon. Manning threw five interceptions while the 49ers had their best pass-rushing day of the season against New York's banged up offensive line. Smith showed flashes of his All-Pro form of 2012, even garnering a triple team in his first game action since the preseason.
"They had some guys keeping an eye on me," Smith quipped.
The 49ers defense put heat on Manning on 51 percent percent of his drop backs, according to Pro Football Focus, far and away the team's best mark of the year. It's no coincidence it happened with Smith back in the lineup, owner of 42 sacks in 44 career games.
"You always see a little rust. When you got a guy like that, man, I called him a freak of nature," injured nose tackle Glenn Dorsey said.
Smith didn't get a sack in the game, but he came close. He brought Manning to the ground on a late third-down play, but Manning was able to fling the ball out toward a receiver before getting taken down.
"It started off slow," Smith said. "As the game went on, it got better. The more I’ve been practicing, the more I’m getting back into football. I’m just getting better, getting back into how I play."
Smith unexpectedly played 54 snaps. Last year when he came back from his absence he saw just 12 plays in San Francisco's 10-9 loss to the Panthers. His six hurries Sunday were one off Lynch's pace of seven.
Smith, along with the rookie, was a benefactor of Ahmad Brooks electing to take himself out of the game in the first half. He was unhappy with his limited role with Smith back in the rotation. Brooks apologized and called it emotional reaction.
Brooks left the game initially and had choice words for the coaching staff, notably defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. At halftime, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio decided Brooks wasn't in the right head space to return to game.
As it turned out, the extra snaps hastened Smith's ability to regain his pass-rushing rhythm.
"The good part about it is his conditioning looked good because he did play probably more than I had envisioned," Fangio said. "And he (played) better as the game went on. That was good also. So, hopefully, he’ll be able to continue to get better and better and hopefully get back to where he was in training camp.”
In training camp, Smith was the most imposing figure on the 49ers' defense. He was a menace lining up on both sides of the formation, more so than the last two seasons. It looked like an enormous loss when his nine-game suspension was announced. But even with an inconsistent pass rush in his absense, San Francisco's defense held its own without Smith getting after the quarterback. It ranks fourth in the NFL in total yardage and against the pass.
Now, with Brooks apparently back on board, the 49ers can employ a three-headed pass rush at outside linebacker for the first time since Fangio joined Jim Harbaugh's staff in 2011.
Washington's talented left tackle Trent Williams is questionable to play Sunday after leaving last week's game with a sprained MCL in his right knee and a sprained right ankle. That means rookie third-round pick Morgan Moses could get his first career start opposite Smith, who is eager to hit his stride against Washington for the second straight season.