It’s hard to precisely quantify how much
Smith’s absence in the final two weeks of the regular season due to a triceps injury was truly difficult for the 49ers stout defense to overcome. After all, Smith has made four consecutive Pro Bowls in five seasons in San Francisco.
On Wednesday, Willis shared details on how much the player known as “Cowboy” means to San Francisco’s defensive unit.
“I’m glad we had that bye week in order to get him that much healthier, just to have him out there,” Willis explained. “He’s a big part of our defense and like I said before, anytime we can have all starting 11 guys out there, that breeds confidence in the defense, it breeds confidence in one another.”
The 49ers were certainly confident with Smith in the lineup in last week’s 45-31 win over the Green Bay Packers. Smith, the Pro Bowl defensive tackle, recorded eight tackles according to 49ers coaching statistics. Even more important, Smith suffered no setback to his injured left arm.
“He said he felt good the next day,” Jim Harbaugh said of his standout defensive lineman. “He was in a great mood and ate a real big lunch. And was real upbeat the day after the game.”
Meals aside, Smith said the biggest take away from the Packers game was learning how to play with a large black brace over most of his left arm.
“I think it felt pretty good for the most part, just getting used to it and playing with it,” the 49ers defensive lineman shared. “It should be even better this week after going through it, knowing how it felt, what to expect from it. So it should be a lot better this week.”
Smith might be playing with a large brace on his arm, but that doesn’t necessarily mean his teammates look at him like Baltimore Ravens inside linebacker Ray Lewis, who wears a similar arm brace on his biceps injury.
The similarities, however, stop there.
The 49ers might take a great deal of confidence from having Smith’s presence on the field, but don’t expect him to showcase any fancy celebrations like the Ravens linebacker.
“I don’t like comparing guys to one another,” Willis said. “Justin is his own guy. He is what he is to us. He’s a guy that’s going to come out there and give it everything he’s got on every play and that’s what we love about him. We’re just glad to have him back in there.”
At full strength, Smith is a walking double-team block waiting to happen. The 6-foot-4, 285-pound lineman recorded 130 tackles in the regular season and added 3.0 sacks and one fumble recovery.
Harbaugh estimated that Smith was somewhere in the 90-100 percent range against the Packers, but even at that rate, the 49ers still have one of the toughest defenders to block.
Against Green Bay, Smith routinely took on double-team blocks, just like he would before the arm injury suffered in the second half of a Week 15 road win against the New England Patriots.
Smith isn’t worried about making the injury worse. Such concerns have been eased now that he has one game under his belt.
“Not really concerned about it, I’m just going to go out there, do the best I can and see what happens,” Smith said.
The defensive tackle’s presence will be needed in heavily in Sunday’s NFC title game. The Atlanta Falcons feature a balanced attack with impressive pass-catchers and physical between-the-tackle runners.
In particular, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has proven to be a worthy opponent in Smith’s eyes.
Why? Because of what he’s able to do.
“Everything that the elite ones do,” Smith said. “Looking off the receivers, knowing where to go with the ball, back shoulder throws, checks when he needs to get into a check. Just all the things that all those guys do, he fits right in with that group, the elite ones and he’s playing awesome football right now.”
Smith, and the rest of the 49ers defense for that matter, is up for the challenge. But first, he’s still getting accustomed to beating blocks while having an arm brace. That chemistry was likely improved with Smith practicing fully on Wednesday for the first time since the injury first happened.
“It’s a love-hate relationship right now,” joked Smith when asked about his brace. “It’s one of those things and it’s doing its job. It felt pretty strong and like I said, doing anything the second time is better than the first time. So it should definitely be a lot better, a lot more comfortable and everything.”