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 to the field 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 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.
Green Bay Packers
at San Francisco 49ers
8 p.m. Saturday, FOX56