San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith (99) blitzes as teammates Michael Wilhoite (57) and Chris Borland (50) look on during the first half of an NFL football game against the New York Giants, Sunday, Nov. 16, 2014, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith (99) fights past New York Giants tackle Troy Kropog (70) during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 16, 2014, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
EAST RUTHERFORD, New Jersey — The stats sheet shows Aldon Smith with barely a presence in the 49ers' 16-10 victory over the Giants. Smith's teammates say otherwise.
Smith returned Sunday from a nine-game suspension for violations of the NFL's substance abuse and personal conduct policies. He had two quarterback hits — and nothing else. Yet, if you asked other San Francisco defensive players about Smith's impact, they raved.
"You have to be aware when Aldon is out there," defensive tackle Justin Smith said. "Teams have to account for a guy like that when he's out there."
Aldon Smith rotated in and out of the lineup throughout the game in which the 49ers (6-4) picked off five of Eli Manning's passes and constantly harassed him. There were only two sacks, but unlike Smith, who said he felt "comfortable," Manning never could settle in.
"It was exciting, like the first day of school," Aldon Smith said. "Like anything, at first you won't be as good as when you left off, but as the game goes on, you get better and better."
The 25-year-old Smith has been one of the NFL's top pass rushers since breaking into the league in 2011. He had 14 sacks as a rookie, then 19 1/2 in 2012 as the 49ers went to the Super Bowl and he made the All-Pro team.
Despite wholesale troubles last year — treatment at an inpatient facility following a DUI arrest on Sept. 20, 2013; pleading not guilty to three felony counts of illegal possession of an assault weapon — he managed 8 1/2 more sacks in 11 games.
Last spring, the 49ers picked up his 2015 contract option, but Smith was arrested in April at Los Angeles International Airport. Police said Smith became uncooperative during a screening, telling a TSA agent that he had a bomb. No charges were filed.
Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Smith for nine games in August.
The 49ers have been hit hard by injuries at linebacker while Smith was out; standouts NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis are gone, although rookie Chris Borland and untested Dan Skuta have been solid.
Coach Jim Harbaugh noted the performances of several linebackers who have stepped up when their playing time increased.
"Aldon did some good things, Corey Lamonier did some good things, a major performance by Chris Borland," Harbaugh said. "I thought we had good pressure up front and our secondary was competing all around."
Having their dynamic pass rusher back could be critical to San Francisco's push for the playoffs.
"It was big, having 99 out there on the edge," safety Antoine Bethea said of Aldon Smith. "You know what kind of pressure he can put on a quarterback. As a DB, that's what you want, being able to look at the quarterback and get some good jumps on the ball. It was good having 99 back out there."
Smith believes it will get even better.
"I started off slow and as the game went on, I was more comfortable," he said. "I was able to go out there and pick it right up, able to get back there and get pressure on the quarterback.
"I've learned a lot. I realize the situation and then to be able to play this game, I am thrilled for it."