SANTA CLARA — As Aldon Smith chases down the NFL record for sacks, his specialty becomes of particular significance this week when the San Francisco 49ers face New England and the NFL’s top-ranked offense.
The Patriots have been vulnerable most often when opponents put quarterback Tom Brady on his back.
Nobody in the league has been better at that this season than Smith. The NFL leader with 19½ sacks, he enters Sunday night’s game three sacks short of Michael Strahan’s single-season record after recording at least one in seven consecutive games and 14 in San Francisco’s past six games.
Brady has been sacked seven times in New England’s three losses and only 13 times in the team’s 10 wins. How much pressure Smith and San Francisco’s second-ranked defense can put on Brady could be the key to ending the Patriots’ seven-game winning streak.
That hasn’t been an easy thing to do for most opponents. Only once during New England’s past eight games has Brady been sacked more than once. He wasn’t sacked at all in three of those games.
“It’s a big challenge to put pressure on Tom Brady when he’s so good with every detail of his game,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said Friday. “Everything is so refined. There’s not a lot of tips you can get or clues even when he’s in the shotgun. So it’s a big task and that’s something that we would like to get done. I think we’re up for it.”
Smith has been up for practically every pass-rushing challenge over the past two months, particularly in prime-time games.
He had a career-high 5½ sacks the last time the 49ers played a night game Nov. 19 against the Chicago Bears. Three weeks before that, Smith had two sacks during a Monday night rout of Arizona. In six career games played in prime time, the second-year pro has produced 12½ sacks.
“It’s just that feeling that you get again, being in the spotlight,” Smith said. “Being back under the lights, that’s when everybody got their real love for football. Back in high school under the lights, Friday night lights, you knew it was show time. Everybody just gets up for it.”
The spotlight has been shining bright on Smith as he approaches Strahan’s league record set in 2001. Smith is the first player in NFL history to record 14 or more sacks in his first two seasons, and his 33½ career sacks are the most ever by a player in his first two years.
Smith is eager to add to those totals Sunday against a familiar opponent. The No. 7 overall selection in the 2011 NFL draft, Smith will line up in base defensive formations across from New England left tackle Nate Solder, the No. 17 pick in last year’s draft.
Smith and Solder faced each other in college when Smith was at Missouri and Solder at Colorado in 2009. As a redshirt freshman, Smith had a college career-high three sacks and four tackles behind the line of scrimmage in that game, a 36-17 Missouri victory.
“I faced (Solder) in college and I was able to beat him,” Smith said. “I’m sure he improved, and they do a really good job working well with each other, working as an O-line to protect the quarterback. (Brady) does a good job getting rid of the ball, so getting pressure on him and confusing him and making his job a lot harder are things we have to do.”
The San Francisco defense relies on Smith’s impact from the edge to make those things happen.
“It’s going to take a lot of pressure, Aldon and those guys getting to Brady,” cornerback Carlos Rogers said. “They need to mix up their looks and get him off his spot so he’s not sitting back there baking a cake and picking us apart.”
New England is the NFL’s highest-scoring team, averaging 36.3 points per game, and in the six games the Patriots have won by more than 10 points this season, Brady has been sacked only three times. In New England’s seven other games, Brady has been sacked 17 times and the Patriots are 4-3.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio understands the correlation between getting pressure on Brady and having success against the Patriots.
“Every week’s a challenge in this league, but this week it’s more of a challenge because of Brady and their offense,” Fangio said. “There is no one way to defend Brady, which to me is the definition of a great quarterback. Do you want to pressure him some? Yeah. Do you want to rush three, five, six? Yes. But you’ve got to do a little bit of everything, because he’s really good.”
Smith will be coming with everything he has as he attempts to bring down Brady and break the sacks record.
“It’s one of the goals I have,” Smith said, “and just have to really keep it going, see if I can make that number even better.”