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49ers Await Justin Smith's Return

Posted Jan 7, 2013

Justin Smith and Ray Lewis are on different coasts playing for different Harbaughs. But the 49ers are hoping their defensive leader can step back on the field and provide a spark on Saturday, just as Lewis did to the Baltimore Ravens this past weekend in the playoffs.

Lewis, who played for the first time since suffering a triceps injury in Week 6, pumped up the crowd and his teammates on Saturday as he did his trademark dance to enter the field. He went on to have a team-high 13 tackles, helping Baltimore claim a 24-9 win over the Colts to reach the second round.

While Smith probably won’t be doing any dancing as he takes the field for the 5 p.m. Saturday kickoff against Green Bay, teammate Tarell Brown is hoping Smith’s presence will boost the 49ers and the home crowd.

“Justin brings that same heartbeat that Ray brings to his team,” Brown said of Smith and Lewis. “Having ‘The Cowboy’ back out there, having him fully go, will bring a different attitude, different aspect to the game. We’re looking forward to it. I know he’s hyped up about it.”

Nothing is set in stone yet, but it sounds like Smith will return to game action on Saturday for the first time since injuring his triceps in Week 15 at New England.

Smith, who has been named to the past four Pro Bowls, was a limited participant in last week’s practice sessions, taking the field with a brace on his left arm. Even though Smith wasn’t at full strength, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh detected a different mindset from his team with the All-Pro on the field.

“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,” the 49ers coach said. “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.”

Speaking of Lewis, Harbaugh recently heard from his father, Jack, that he was the first sack victim in the future Hall of Fame linebacker’s career. Harbaugh’s Indianapolis Colts defeated Baltimore 26-21 on Oct. 13, 1996, but the former quarterback doesn’t remember the sack, saying, “I’ve forgotten half my life.”

“My legend grows,” Harbaugh quipped. “Ray Lewis’ first sack.”

Ricky Jean Francois has picked up most of the slack and performed admirably in Smith’s stead, recording two sacks in the final two weeks of the regular season.

But it’s hard for any player to duplicate Smith’s relentless attitude and impact on the field. By the coaches’ count, Smith racked up 130 tackles, the third-most on the team behind NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis.

“For another defensive end to try and come in and fill his shoes, it’s going to be big shoes to fill,” Ahmad Brooks said. “I’m just glad for him to come back. He creates a lot of havoc in the backfield, he creates a lot of double teams and that gets other guys to make more plays.”

Perhaps no one will benefit more from Smith’s presence than fellow Pro Bowler Aldon Smith. The second-year linebacker racked up 19.5 sacks this season, thanks in large part to the extra attention that Justin Smith receives on almost every play.

Facing a Packers offensive line that allowed Rodgers to be sacked 51 times in the regular season, the most for any quarterback in the NFL this season, Aldon Smith could be primed for a big day. Aldon Smith, Brooks and Carlos Rogers each had a sack of Rodgers in the Week 1, 30-22 49ers win at Lambeau Field.

“There’s no other defense we’d rather go into a game with than ours,” Harbaugh said.

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