NEW ORLEANS -- Fred Dean thought he was looking into a mirror Monday night. Actually, it was a television, and the Hall of Fame pass rusher was watching Aldon Smith.
Smith's 5½ sacks in the 49ers' rout of the Chicago Bears came within a half-sack of Dean's single-game franchise record, set in 1983 against the New Orleans Saints at Candlestick Park.
"All I could see were flashbacks," Dean said last week from his home in Ruston, La., "especially the move upfield and he came under quick. That was my specialty, and he perfected it."
Smith's dizzying moves, top-notch speed and overlooked power have produced a league-leading 15 sacks. The 49ers (7-2-1) will need more pass-rushing brilliance Sunday to counter Drew Brees and the host Saints (5-5).
On the flip side, the 49ers will need another round of pass-protecting dominance to aid Colin Kaepernick, who's expected to make a second straight start at quarterback in place of Alex Smith.
Dean plans to make the 5½-hour drive to the Superdome. He'll cheer on the 49ers as always -- he takes immense pride in nationally televised wins such as Monday's -- and shake hands with Smith, whom he met during Smith's 14-sack rookie season 2011.
Smith is on pace to eclipse Michael Strahan's single-season record of 22½ sacks in 2001. If Smith at least retains his league lead, he would become the 49ers' first NFL sack king since it became a recognized stat in 1982.
This season's continued success, and Monday's sack spree, puts Smith into NFL Defensive Player of the Year consideration, which he "most definitely" wants. Other competitors include two fellow 2011 draft products: the Houston Texans' J.J. Watt (141/2 sacks, 13 passes defensed) and the Denver Broncos' Von Miller (13 sacks, four forced fumbles).
"I compete hard," Smith said. "I feel everybody competes hard. There are so many people playing at an incredible level right now -- Von, J.J., everybody, even the guys on my team.
"To be at the top of that list and get that title, that's cool."
Smith's 15 sacks already place him near the top of the 49ers' yearly sack leaders, behind only: Cedrick Hardman (18, 1971), Dean (171/2, 1983), Tommy Hart (17, 1972), Tim Harris (17, 1992) and Charles Haley (16, 1990).
Smith's 29 career sacks are the most by anyone through 26 games in the NFL's sack-stat era (since 1982). Only Hall of Famers Reggie White (31) and Derrick Thomas (30) had more in their first two seasons.
Saints interim coach Joe Vitt compared Smith's arm length, "slither" quality and burst to the late Thomas, whom Vitt coached in Kansas City.
That comparison, however, was deemed a "little bit of a stretch" by 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Thomas was primarily a speed rusher, in Fangio's eyes, whereas Smith is seen as a multidimensional threat with size, strength and speed.
Coach Jim Harbaugh called Monday's sacks spectacular, because Smith "used a lot of different moves to make those sacks -- a bull rush, great athleticism, great balance. He used his arm one time as a leg to stay up. It was really awesome to see."
It earned Smith his first NFC Defensive Player of the Week award. Smith said of his arsenal: "I'm in (the game) a lot more, so you see a lot more. It's been there."
A situational pass-rusher last season, Smith is a full-time starter and every-down player this season for the league's stingiest defense (13.4 points per game). His pass-rushing exploits are helped by the presence of defensive lineman Justin Smith, who often lines up to Aldon Smith's left. Dean compared the boost provided by Justin Smith to that he received from Dwaine Board and Lawrence Pillars with the 1980s 49ers.
While the sacks and wins have piled up nicely, Aldon Smith also has developed a pattern of off-field incidents this year.
"The bottom line is he's a fun-loving guy," said Dean, now a minister in his native Ruston. "But everybody that pats you on the shoulder is not your friend, and you have to put yourself in the best environment. I had my encounters with people, and I knew how to keep my distance."
When Dean shows up at the Superdome, he expects "the smooth, fast surface" to turn Smith loose on Brees, who's been sacked only 16 times. If Smith's encore tops his 5½-sack outing, Dean will be rooting for his single-game record to fall, noting: "Oh sure, that's what it's there for."