From the moment Derek Smith stepped into the NFL, he started making tackles.

Just like a good middle linebacker is supposed to do. A tackle here, a dozen tackles there. They add up. They added up to such productive totals early in his career, that Smith probably thought he would be a Washington Redskin for life.

He's a 49er now, and that's all you need to know about that idea. Good thing for the 49ers. In just three games with his new team, Smith already has established himself as the heart of San Francisco's young, much-improved defense. He led the Niners in tackles for the third time in three games this season with 11 stops in a 19-17 victory over the New York Jets on Monday night.

In his San Francisco debut last month, Smith had a game-high 15 tackles to spark a defense-inspired overtime victory against the Atlanta Falcons. He followed that in his next outing with a game-high 13 tackles against the St. Louis Rams. When his first month with the Niners was over, Smith not only led San Francisco in tackles, he had more than twice as many as any other player on the team.

Smith, already a fifth-year veteran at the tender age of 26, has picked up right where he left off last season with the Redskins, where he started 63 of his first 66 NFL games and recorded at least 124 tackles in each of his first four seasons before coming to the Niners this year as a free agent. This guy is a tackling machine. That became even more evident before a national television audience on Monday night, when Smith again displayed his speed, aggression and nose for the football against the Jets as the Niners improved to 2-1 and established themselves as an early NFC playoff contender. It might have been Smith's most impressive outing in his young career with the Niners. He made plays from sideline to sideline and also displayed his speed and ball-hawking mentality while making plays downfield in coverage. --- Read more about Smith and why he left Washington to join the 49ers in the cover story of this week's issue of SF Illustrated.

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