For the last 183 consecutive games of his 12-year NFL career,
Dating back to his rookie season in 2001, Smith has been one of the most consistent, reliable performers in the league. Furthermore, the 49ers All-Pro defensive tackle’s 183 starts rank as the NFL’s third-best streak among active players.
For the most part, Smith’s heroics go unnoticed outside the team’s locker room.
No matter, Smith’s fine with the appreciation of his coaches and teammates, who witness one of the most dominant trench players week in and week out.
In last week’s overtime loss in Smith’s home state of Missouri, the veteran lineman had arguably his best game of the season – eight tackles and one sack – giving the 49ers defensive co-captain 3.0 sacks in his last three outings.
It’s always consistent play when it comes to Smith.
“He’s been great,” Jim Harbaugh said on Wednesday. “This past game was one of his best. For Justin, that’s a consistently, good, great performer. (He was) somewhat overshadowed with the amount of tackles and the sack.”
Stats aside (114 tackles – by the coaches’ count – 3.0 sacks, one fumble recovery), Smith remains one of the most talked about components on the league’s No. 2 total defense (279.6 yards per game).
Furthermore, his effort sets the tone for the entire unit.
“It’s been consistently great all year,” Harbaugh said of Smith’s play.
Members of the 49ers offense are even blown away by the weekly bull-rushes performed by the 6-foot-4, 285-pound lineman.
“He destroys people,” Davis said. “He destroys men.”
Perhaps the most admirable component of Smith’s game is that it comes without frills. It’s no-nonsense, stop-it-if-you-can football.
“They know he has one move and they know he’s going to do it,” Davis said, “but he stills destroys them. Seeing it close up is what makes it unique.”
For his contributions to this year’s 49ers defense, Smith would rather deflect praise elsewhere. Instead of pumping himself up for his efforts on the defensive side of the ball, the veteran lineman takes pleasure in the accomplishments of his teammates.
Enter second-year outside linebacker
The elder Smith wants to help his teammate get the records, but not at the expense of damaging team goals.
Watching a teammate pursue NFL history is one thing, but it won’t affect the group’s goals for Sunday when the Miami Dolphins (5-7) come to San Francisco for a non-conference matchup.
“He’s chasing history and he’s going to keep doing what he does to make plays and help the team win,” said Justin Smith on his same last-named teammate. “If along the way he gets the record, then so be it. We’re all pulling for him, hope he gets it, and pretty confident that he will.”
Miami’s offensive line will be tested this week with the loss of left tackle Jake Long to a season-ending triceps injury.
In his absence, second-round draft pick Jonathan Martin moved from the right side to the left side in emergency duty last week in a loss to the New England Patriots.
The 49ers Smith duo might be unfamiliar with Martin’s on-field play, but the same can’t be said for the coaching staff. Both of San Francisco’s coordinators, Greg Roman and Vic Fangio, spent time coaching Martin at college as part of Harbaugh’s Stanford staff.
“Good player for us at Stanford,” Harbaugh said of the Dolphins new left tackle. “He’s been doing a good job his entire rookie year and to make the switch from right tackle to left tackle, he’s adapted and doing a good job. With (them) losing their tackle, he’ll be called on this week.”
Justin Smith, the player who will line up directly across from Martin, considers the young player to be “serviceable” but not the same as Long, a perennial Pro Bowler.
Smith also expects Martin to be aided by chip blocks from running backs out of the backfield, sliding the line to left side and also bootlegs with rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who has the most rookie passing yards in Dolphins history.
“We anticipate all those types of deals going on,” said Justin Smith, who pointed out that Tannehill is mobile for a signal-caller and that he doesn’t look like he’s “stuck in the mud” when back in the pocket.
“They’ve become even more right-handed with Jake Long being out from what I’ve seen,” Justin Smith also pointed out. “Overall, they’re a pretty good team. They’ve been in a lot of tight games, should be a good matchup.”
It should also be a good matchup for the 49ers Smith duo, which continues to work in tandem to break sack records left and right.
The elder Smith, however, believes he’s just a bit player in his younger teammate’s success.
In his mind, Aldon Smith wins many of his pass-rushing matchups on his own, not just those that involve the Missouri products using stunt rushes.
“Aldon does a great job no matter what we’re doing, the stunts, the one-on-one pass-rush, he’s doing the work and he’s getting it done himself, too,” Justin Smith pointed out.
In the veteran’s mind, the younger defender has learned how to read situations and how teams try to limit his production.
In doing so, the second-year player has become a force as an every-down player, not just when he’s able to rush the passer in long down-and-distance situations.
“He doesn’t hurt us in the run either,” Justin Smith pointed out. “A lot of times guys chasing all these sacks will hurt you in the run. He’s helped us in the run; he’s an all-around great player. That’s what you have to be to be a good defense, you can’t just have guys out there playing for selfish goals. He’s done it along with helping the team win football games. That’s the ultimate goal here.”
Sack records are nice, but not the ultimate goal for San Francisco’s defense.
“We take pride as a defense and I know that he feels the same way,” Justin Smith said. “It’s all about winning these games, getting to the playoffs and hopefully win us a Super Bowl. Hopefully that record falls on the way there.”