Many eyes will be on linebacker Aldon Smith on Friday when the San Francisco 49ers open the preseason at home against the Minnesota Vikings at Candlestick Park.
Smith collected a team-best 14 sacks in his rookie season last year as a third-down specialist. This year, the workload will increase as he is expected to be an every-down player.
One of the Smith’s challenges will be playing some outside linebacker and being involved in more coverages.
“He hadn’t played much outside linebacker, so he might get a few more snaps there,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “But we haven’t really determined it yet.”
Smith is not the only 49ers defender being watched carefully on Friday. Fangio said he is looking forward to seeing how his entire group performs against the Vikings.
“I’m anxious to just see everybody play, both as an individual, particularly the young guys, and as a unit,” he said. “So, just wanting to see good playing, guys have been coached out there, they’ve learned what we’ve put in and they can execute it. So, really, evaluate the individuals and the unit as a whole.”
Another linebacker being carefully watched by Fangio is Ahmad Brooks. Although he recently had what Fangio called a “bad practice,” he has been impressed with Brooks and said he has had a good camp as a whole.
“I think it’s been excellent,” Fangio said. “He signed his big contract last year or this past offseason in February, whenever it was. And he didn’t disappear. He was here even more so than he’s ever been. And was one of our best workers in the offseason and has got himself in the best shape of his career so far.”
The 49ers’ linebackers have been the biggest strength of the defense. That is not expected to change this year.
“Well, they’re talented, number one,” Fangio said. “To even ask that question, you’re insinuating that they have a high talent level, and that’s correct. They’ve got great talent in (Patrick) Willis, (NaVorro) Bowman, Brooks and Smith. But we’ve got to do it on the field in a more consistent manner over an extended period of time.
“I get asked a lot about how do they compare to the four guys we had in New Orleans, and I said, ‘Well those four guys started for us in New Orleans for seven straight years together.’ Hopefully we can have a run like that here. And once we start doing that two, three, four years, then maybe I’ll have a better answer to that question.”
Another linebacker who has helped out is veteran Parys Haralson. He has taken Smith under his wing as Smith prepares to be more than just a pass rusher.
“Parys helps tremendously,” Fangio said. “He’s got a great relationship with Aldon. He shares anything and everything that he can with him for Aldon to improve. And I think the dynamics of that relationship couldn’t be any better.”
That includes helping stop the run. The 49ers are one of the best in the NFL in that regard, but Fangio knows the defense cannot depend on its past success. It has to work even harder to continue to get better.
It starts Friday night against Minnesota.
“We can’t assume we have a good run defense just because we did last year,” Fangio said. “You’ve got to start all over. I’d like to see the Vikings just run their balanced offense against us, so we can get a good evaluation both run and pass.”
Whether Minnesota’s offense runs or passes, it will be a big test for San Francisco’s defense.