SANTA CLARA, California (AP) — Even at less than full strength, Justin Smith's presence on the San Francisco 49ers 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 on 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 to the field for Saturday's NFL divisional playoff game against the Green Bay Packers at Candlestick Park, and 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 covered in a protective brace for practice, and everybody involved expects him to be ready to play for the NFC West champions.
Coach Jim Harbaugh put it this way on Wednesday: "God willing and the creek don't rise, he will play." It is the versatile Smith who makes this defense go — with his stingy pass-rushing and run-stopping. Sure, there's Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith. And a talented, playmaking secondary.
Smith is a smash-mouth footballer 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 just being back on the practice field enhances the character of our team," Harbaugh said this week. "We look very much forward to having him back in the lineup." Until last month, Smith had started 185 consecutive games dating to his rookie season of 2001.
The 49ers need Smith to help them get past last season's disappointing finish and finally return to the Super Bowl. The team lost in overtime of the NFC title game to the eventual champion New York Giants, failing in its bid to reach the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1994 season.
"It's a big lift, for the simple fact Justin's a Pro Bowler and to try to fill his shoes, they're big shoes to fill," linebacker Ahmad Brooks said. "He creates a lot of havoc for the backfield and draws a lot of double-teams."
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 19 ½ 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, when Smith was sidelined.
Justin Smith doesn't own the flashy numbers or statistics of the NFL's more well-known defensive stars, some on his team. Smith, who spent his first seven NFL seasons with Cincinnati before joining the 49ers as a free agent in 2008, was picked as a starter for this year's Pro Bowl.
And he is the league's top tackler among defensive linemen since 2001 with 792. "We need Justin," Brooks said. "It changes the whole attitude of the defense."