For 185 consecutive games, Justin Smith was a rock.
First for the Bengals and then the 49ers, Smith was both an immovable force on the defensive line and an anchor of stability, starting every game.
In recent seasons as the right defensive end for the Niners, the All-Pro has been a force against the run and a powerful presence on the pass rush. Often, opponents have had to double team Smith, and that has opened the gates for outside linebacker Aldon Smith to get to the quarterback and inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman to make tackles.
Now, however, Smith’s absence from the lineup is a major concern.
In San Francisco’s lopsided loss to the Seahawks this past Sunday night, the 49ers’ run defense was unusually porous, and Smith’s replacement, Ricky Jean Francois, was consistently a target of the Seattle running attack. On Seattle’s first touchdown run by Marshawn Lynch, in fact, the Seahawks went right at Francois.
Smith, who has an injured elbow (that might require offseason surgery), isn’t expected to play in this Sunday’s regular-season finale at Candlestick Park against the Arizona Cardinals. It’s a crucial game for the 10-4-1 49ers, who need a victory to clinch the NFC West title. A San Francisco loss and a victory by the Seahawks over the Rams will give Seattle the division.
And, farther down the road, the absence of Smith for the playoffs could be a major loss.
Smith – voted into the Pro Bowl again on Wednesday – makes the Niners a much more formidable force.
As Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat wrote this week, Smith’s absence allows opponents to better block Willis and Bowman, and he’s also allowed Aldon Smith to have a Pro Bowl season as a high-impact pass rusher.
Plus, Justin Smith is a leader on the defense, a guy admired for his strength and toughness and leadership.
“Now Aldon Smith has to beat tackles around the edge, and very often he has to face a double team,” Cohn wrote.
Aldon Smith, in fact, told the media Wednesday that with Justin Smith out, it’s important for him to take his game to a higher level in more ways than one.
“I should definitely step up,” Aldon Smith said. “Even if he is playing, I need to step up and be more vocal of a leader. Having a guy like that not be around, somebody needs to step up and say something. But there’s a team full of leaders, a defense full of leaders, so it wouldn’t be that hard to do.”
Head coach Jim Harbaugh this week told the Sacramento Bee “I don’t know for sure” if Smith will be back for the postseason. If so, teammates know they have some big shoes to fill.
“He demands a double team, he’ll get after the quarterback,” 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers said. “When (opponents) scout our defense and talk about our D-line, they’re going to scout Justin. He makes it easier for our linebackers. He makes it easier for Aldon to get sacks. He’s a big part of our defense. But the thing about it is, the next guy’s going to step up. We can’t use Justin being out as an excuse.”