It’s often hard to quantify how important one player is to a football team.
Statistics don’t really show how well a block was thrown, a route run or how many blockers a defender tied up that allowed a teammate to make a key stop.
So as the 49ers prepare to host the Packers Saturday night in an NFC Divisional playoff game at Candlestick Park, it’s hard to measure what a less-than-100-percent Justin Smith would mean to the 49ers defense.
Smith, the perennial Pro Bowl right defensive end in the 49ers’ 3-4 base defense, has vowed to play Saturday after missing the last 2½ games of the regular season with a tear to his left triceps.
In his absence, the Niners have seemed a far more vulnerable defense against the run, and right outside linebacker Aldon Smith – who was leading the NFL in sacks going into the New England game on Dec. 16 when Justin Smith was injured – hasn’t had a single sack.
As Benjamin Hoffman of the New York Times wrote this week, in previewing this playoff matchup, Smith’s importance “cannot be overstated.”
“After he was forced to leave a Week 15 game against New England because of an injured triceps, the vaunted 49ers defense fell apart,” wrote Hoffman. “The Patriots nearly came back to win, and the next week Seattle crushed the 49ers. Even in a Week 17 win over Arizona, the defense allowed a touchdown pass by Brian Hoyer, which would have been unthinkable a few weeks earlier.”
Hoffman noted that Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis – who had a similar injury -- came back to play effectively for Baltimore in its playoff win last week over Indianapolis, but he had to sit out 11 weeks. Smith has been out for four, with the Niners having the luxury of a bye week during wild-card weekend.
But Justin Smith resumed practicing last week and will play Saturday night.
“God willing and the creek don’t rise, he’s going to play,” San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters this week. Smith has been wearing a brace on his left arm and elbow.
“There’s been significant improvement since that time (of adding the brace),” Harbaugh said.
Niners safety Donte Whitner told Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle this week that he believes Justin Smith will be “95 percent” for Saturday’s game.
Whitner told Branch that in practice, Smith has shown no signs of having less strength in his left arm while dealing with former Pro Bowl offensive lineman Leonard Davis.
“When you’re out there and against a big guy like Leonard Davis (6-foot-6, 335 pounds) and you’re pushing him around with both arms, I don’t think you really have a problem,” Whitner said. “He’s one of the biggest offensive guards in the National Football League, so to be able to go out there and practice against him all week and be able to control him and move around with both arms, I think Justin showed a lot by doing that.”
Davis, for his part, said it’s still hard to tell how strong Justin Smith will be in live-action situations.
Niners defensive coordinator Vic Fangio told the Chronicle that Smith won’t play if he’s less than 80 percent effective. Ricky Jean Francois, who played in Smith’s absence, will be ready to sub in whenever necessary.
Without an effective Justin Smith, wrote the Chronicle’s Kevin Lynch, the Niners’ defense isn’t the same.
“What the team can’t replace without Smith is his leadership, his pass rush, his unstoppable stunts with linebacker Aldon Smith and his ability to pursue,” wrote Lynch.
Yer even if Smith isn’t his normal self, Harbaugh believes just having him on the field against the Packers will help the 49ers.
“Justin, his presence just back on the practice field, I can tell you this, that there’s a character of our team that’s enhanced, is driven by Justin,” Harbaugh told the media this week. “And that’s the way I think of it. That’s what I sense and feel when we’re out there on the practice field. And we look very much forward to having him back in the lineup.”
To see what the Packers have to say about all this, check out the sports section at our affiliate station in Milwaukee, Today's TMJ4.com