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Aldon Smith is latest, greatest challenge for Seahawks

By Brady Henderson

We’ve noted a few times this season the Seahawks’ improved pass protection and how Seattle has fared particularly well against some of the NFL’s better pass rushers.

That is still the case heading into Sunday night’s matchup with the 49ers and second-year outside linebacker Aldon Smith, who’s tied for the league lead with an absurd 19.5 sacks.

With 19.5 sacks, Aldon Smith is three shy of the single-season record. (AP)

San Francisco’s defense ranks second in yardage and first in scoring. It has playmakers and Pro Bowlers at every level, but it’s the guys up front that seem to generate the most fear.

“Really, their front seven is I think definitely the best in the league. They’ve shown it,” Seahawks tight end Zach Miller told “Bob and Groz” on Monday. “They have a great defense with those two linebackers, [NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis], and then you’ve got Aldon Smith coming off the edge and Justin Smith in the middle there. There’s some challenges we’re going to have, but I like what we’ve been doing lately.”

What the Seahawks have been doing lately – aside from scoring at least 50 points in their last two games – is protecting their quarterback much better than they did a season ago. Seattle allowed 50 sacks last season, the fourth-most in the NFL. That number is 26 through 14 games this season, tied for eighth-fewest.

There are a few reasons for the improvement. Russell Wilson is more mobile than last year’s starter, Tarvaris Jackson, which allows him to avoid some of the sacks that his predecessor couldn’t. Wilson doesn’t share Jackson’s tendency to hold onto the ball too long.

And Seattle’s offensive line has been better. Left tackle Russell Okung, slowed by injuries in his first two seasons, has missed just one game. According to some, he’s played at a Pro Bowl level despite some problems with penalties. Center Max Unger has also been mentioned as a Pro Bowl candidate after the team rewarded him with a new deal in the offseason.

The Seahawks have faced 11 pass rushers who had at least eight sacks last season. That includes two games against Arizona’s Calais Campbell. Only three of those pass rushers – Aldon Smith, Minnesota’s Brian Robison and Chicago’s Julius Peppers – have recorded a sack against Seattle. Each had one.

Not included in that list are Green Bay’s Clay Matthews and Buffalo’s Mario Williams, considered two of the league’s premier pass rushers. Neither had a sack in losses to the Seahawks.

The 49ers are tied for 11th in team sacks with the 35, the same total as Seattle. Aside from Aldon Smith, no other player has more than 5.5. Smith already has the record for most sacks in a player’s first two seasons, and he’s three short of the single-season record set by the Giants’ Michael Strahan in 2001.