SANTA CLARA, Calif. - So there was Justin Smith, inside a tent last week, behind a lectern, clad in gray San Francisco 49ers sweats complete with the requisite lineman stains. His face hinted at neither worry nor concern.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — So there was Justin Smith, inside a tent last week, behind a lectern, clad in gray San Francisco 49ers sweats complete with the requisite lineman stains. His face hinted at neither worry nor concern.That whole thing about a partially torn triceps tendon?
What whole thing about a partially torn triceps tendon?
Smith, an All-Pro defensive lineman, took several questions about the injury, which in December ended a streak of consecutive starts that dated to 2001, when he was a rookie with the Cincinnati Bengals. He spoke of his “love-hate” relationship with the bulky black brace he wore on his left arm last weekend against the Green Bay Packers. He even noted the obvious possibility that he could exacerbate the injury, further tear the tendon, which he dismissed: “I’m not concerned.”
He added, “I really don’t want to get into how it feels, or this or that.”
Smith’s injury, however he wanted to deal with or describe it, loomed anyway over San Francisco’s preparation for the NFC championship game today in Atlanta against the Falcons. That’s because Smith is more than simply important to the 49ers defense; he is emblematic of both the team and its hard-hat mentality, which has made San Francisco a trendy Super Bowl favorite.
In the 49ers’ 45-31 demolition of the Packers — last week’s trendy Super Bowl favorite — Smith played all but five defensive snaps. According to statistics compiled during the coaches’ video review, Smith recorded four solo tackles, four assisted tackles, two quarterback hits and four quarterback pressures. The official game statistics credited him with five tackles.
Regardless, coach Jim Harbaugh acknowledged Smith’s impact.
“And the legend grows,” Harbaugh said. “What a player.”
Smith’s teammates make him sound like a combination of Reggie White and Chuck Norris: Able to command double teams and topple two men with one hand; strong enough to slam a revolving door. Part man, part anchor, part beast.
He signed with the 49ers in 2008 after seven seasons in Cincinnati. Mike Nolan, San Francisco’s coach at the time, told retired quarterback Trent Dilfer that Smith should be ranked among the top five players in the NFL. That seemed like an exaggeration — until Dilfer started to really watch Smith.
“So much of Justin’s greatness doesn’t show up in making plays,” said Dilfer, now an ESPN analyst. “So much of it is in how he helps others to make plays. I’m convinced he’s one of the top 10 best players in the NFL, the impact he has on every game.”
Among Smith’s highlights: He made the past four Pro Bowls, recorded at least six sacks in each of those seasons (tied for the second-longest such streak in team history) and led all defensive linemen with 792 tackles since 2001. This season, despite his injury, Smith was voted second-team All-Pro.
Smith’s triceps tendon tore against New England in mid-December, and his absence forced the 49ers to reconfigure the defense. Smith occupies multiple blockers on many plays; suddenly, those extra offensive linemen or backs could shift elsewhere and focus on linebackers or other linemen. Sometimes that meant San Francisco was forced to rush the quarterback with more players, which left fewer in coverage. This was the trickle-down effect.
Smith eased back into practice as his injury healed. He missed parts of three games, including two starts, but was aided by the playoff bye that San Francisco received. Last week, as the Packers game neared, Smith worked on a limited basis while Harbaugh gave reporters an update regarding his injury status.
“God willing and the creek don’t rise, he’s going to play,” Harbaugh said.
And Smith did play, as the 49ers marched back into the NFC title game for the second straight season. The vibe around the facility felt different this past week, Smith said. Just getting to that point no longer felt like an accomplishment. The goal is beyond the conference championship, but closer now.
“There’s a different feel this year,” Smith said, his torn triceps notwithstanding, hardly acknowledged, yet also pivotal for the 49ers’ playoff hopes.