SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Even at less than full strength, Justin Smith’s presence on the San Francisco defensive line is enough to instill plenty of fear in opposing offenses.
Or even his own teammates, for that matter. Running back Frank Gore endured his toughest training camp yet last summer while facing his defensive teammates each day – Smith, in particular.
“I’d take a 75 percent Justin ahead of anybody,” Gore said Wednesday. “At 75-80 percent, he’s better than anybody at his position. … I’m not scared, haaa! But he’s a beast, man.”
Smith is expected to return for Saturday night’s NFC divisional playoff game against Green Bay (12-5) at Candlestick Park, and, oh, how his teammates will welcome back “The Cowboy” as they try to chase down Aaron Rodgers and Co.
Smith, the soft-spoken emotional leader of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s unit, missed the final two regular-season games with a partially torn left triceps muscle. His arm is now covered in a protective brace for practice, and everybody involved expects him to be ready to play for the NFC West champions (11-4-1).
Coach Jim Harbaugh put it this way Wednesday: “God willing and the creek don’t rise, he will play.”
Having the extra week of rest was a huge help for Smith’s health. San Francisco secured the NFC’s No. 2 seed with a win against Arizona and when Minnesota beat Green Bay in Week 17.
It is the versatile Smith who makes this defense go – with his pass-rushing and run-stopping.
He is a smash-mouth football player to the core – the definition of the blue-collar player Harbaugh so loves. Smith chips his teeth about once a season thanks to a refusal to wear a mouth guard because it restricts his breathing.
“Justin, his presence just back on the practice field, I can tell you this, that there’s a character of our team that’s enhanced, is driven by Justin,” Harbaugh said earlier in the week. “And that’s the way I think of it. That’s what I sense and feel when we’re out there on the practice field. And we look very much forward to having him back in the lineup.”
Smith dominates the right side of the line with his sheer physical strength and spot-on instincts. He is probably the biggest reason linebacker Aldon Smith finished with a franchise-record 191/2 sacks this season — falling three shy of Michael Strahan’s single-season mark set in 2001 for the Giants. Yet Aldon Smith didn’t have a single one over the final three games, most of that stretch with Justin Smith sidelined.
And while Justin Smith doesn’t have the gaudy stats of some of the more well-know defensive stars, he was chosen as a starter for the Pro Bowl. Plus, no defensive lineman in the NFL has had more tackles than Smith since 2001 – 792.
The team doctors will have the final say, but Smith will offer his health input – “the player knows his body best,” Harbaugh said. And Smith has already said he will be on the field to face the Packers.
“Well, he’s told me he’s ready, and he’s ready to go, and that’s enough for me,” Fangio said. “He plays with a tenacity and an effort level that’s second to none. And it’s just contagious to everybody.”