Yahoo! NFL blogger Doug Farrar recently wrote an excellent article detailing the NFL’s most underrated players, which included a couple of defenders from a surprising 49ers defense. The names included were linebackers Parys Haralson and NaVorro Bowman, who absolutely deserve to be mentioned in any and every underrated NFL players list, but one other 49ers defender was missing: Justin Smith.

Smith is perennially underrated mainly because of his team’s lack of success. But that has changed this season, yet he’s still not getting the pub he deserves. While studying Smith’s game over the years, I’ve noticed that he is able to line up at various techniques, such as the one, three, shaded four, head up four and five techniques. He also has successfully penetrated a single gap as a 1 gap defender as well as a 2 gap read-and-react defender.  Smith’s motor is also worth mentioning, which he often combines with excellent hand use to make plays on quarterbacks and ball carriers.

Smith’s hand use is the topic of today’s post and along the way, his run defending ability and various pass rush moves will be on display. In the season opener against the Seattle Seahawks, Smith showed his ability to stack and shed blocks as a 2-gap defender against the run. Pictured on the left, Smith held up the block with his quality hand use.

As the run develops, Smith sheds the block by disengaging his hands off of the run blocker and tossing him aside.

Lastly, a big play by Smith always comes with great hustle, and on this play he chased down running back Marshawn Lynch.

Smith had two sacks that came on crucial downs against the Seahawks which helped the 49ers defense get off the field, and get the ball back into the Alex Smith’s hands. On his first sack, Smith aligned pre-snap in a shaded four technique, which is across the inside shoulder of the offensive tackle.

At the snap of the ball, Smith charged into the B gap — which is between the guard and tackle — by design and forced offensive tackle Russell Okung (76) to slide over hard to pick him up.


On the backside of the play, the running back (33) had to pick up an outside blitzer to his left, thus widening the blockers and creating a hole in between them for Smith to attack.

With Smith initially charging the B gap, Okung was out of position to pick up anything to his left, so Smith spun outside and got to the quarterback.

Smith’s second sack against the Seahawks was more impressive than his first. Before the snap, Smith once again lined up in a shaded four technique in a three-point stance.

At the snap of the ball, Smith takes a contained rush up-field before dipping his shoulder — which is very important in pass rushing because it enables you to gain a leverage advantage — and placing his hands inside of the guard’s breast plates.


Once Smith gets his hands inside of the Seattle pass blocker, he does a great job of sinking his hips and driving the blocker back into his quarterback.

In a Week 6 clash of undefeated teams, Smith came up big once again for his team multiple times. The first time, it was against the run when he was a 2 gap defender, which requires him to hold up his block before shedding it to make the tackle. Once Smith did his job of setting the edge, he shed the block and made the big stop on Lions running back Jahvid Best in the red zone.

Later in the game,  Smith lined up at the five technique, which is on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle, before the snap on a passing down.

When the ball was snapped, Smith exploded off the line and displayed great ‘pop’, jarring the Detroit pass blocker. Smith’s pop is very important to note, as it is crucial in the trenches. Both sides of the ball have to be able to rock the opponent back to gain a leverage advantage.

Once Smith jarred back the pass blocker, forcing the blocker to play with a high pad level, he was then able to get inside and grab the blocker’s breast plates. When he gets a hold of them, he is able to control the pass blocker, thus gaining the leverage advantage. At this point, he sinks his hips and drives the blocker back into the collapsing pocket.

As Smith settled into the bulrush, the pass blocker set his base to defend it, but Smith ends up disengaging with his outside arm and bringing it over, creating a free path to the quarterback. This was all created by two things: the pop and the hand usage. Once Smith got into the chest of the pass blocker, it was all downhill for the blocker from there. Smith had control and could take the blocker wherever he wanted.

The last big play that must be talked about is his most recent one against the New York Giants this past Sunday. On a crucial fourth down play in the red zone, Smith lined up in a shaded four technique.


Once the action started, Smith attacked the outside shoulder of the guard (66) and got his outside hand inside of the blocker. His inside hand was on the inside arm of the guard, which allowed him to gain control and re-position himself inside.

As Smith got inside of the blocker, he struggled to collapse the pocket because the blocker did a good job of re-anchoring. However, despite this, Smith still had the leverage advantage because his hands were inside of the blocker. Once he saw that he wasn’t able to collapse the pocket, Smith read the quarterback and got his arms free, which led to his game-saving pass deflection.

Smith’s ability to rush the passer as well as play the run makes him one of the most complete and best defensive ends in the game of football today. As illustrated, he has a plethora of pass rush moves that allow him to punish pass blockers and collapse the pocket.

What makes Smith stand out from other pass rushers is his hand usage as well as his great motor, which has been on display multiple times throughout his career, most notably in Philadelphia earlier this season, where he chased down speedster Jeremy Maclin to force a fumble.

Despite all of the great traits he possesses, Smith is constantly forgotten in debates about the league’s best players. That’s disappointing, but everyone will learn his name once he starts disrupting offenses in the playoffs.

Comments (2)

  1. According to Profootballfocus, Justin Smith has played 96% of all snaps this year. As a Green Bay fan I think Raji plays too many snaps and this affects his energy on some plays. However, Smith is 32 and plays just as much as Raji yet his production keeps going up year on year. How much longer can Smith do this for and is it rare for defensive ends to keep improving during their thirties?

    Also I have heard it said (and agree) that San Francisco have the best front defensive 7 in football and this is in large part to Justin Smith. Would you agree that they have also the best front nickel 6 in the league too? I think SF in nickel match up to Green Bay better than any other defence. Thanks.

  2. Smith’s play can also be attributed to Jim Tomsula, maybe the best D Line coach in the game. Love watching the 49ers play defense.

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