At age 34, Justin Smith has taken thousands of hits. In his 13th NFL season, Smith’s body has absorbed week after week of physical punishment. And, going into this season, there were questions about whether the 49ers’ All-Pro defensive end would regain the form he had last season before he suffered a partially torn triceps and essentially had to play one-armed through the postseason.
Yet 10 games into the 2013 season, it’s obvious Smith is as good now as he’s ever been. There are other areas to find fault with on the 6-4 Niners – who now are relegated to fighting for a wild-card playoff spot – but right defensive end in San Francisco’s 3-4 defense isn’t one of them.
Smith has been terrific against the run, again drawing double teams and getting push against opposing offensive lines. He has 34 tackles and 2½ sacks and has helped the 49ers be one of the NFL’s best defensive units. San Francisco ranks No. 7 in total defense, is No. 3 in points allowed (just 17.8 points per game) and is 12th against the run, giving up just 3.9 yards per carry.
This past week in New Orleans, where the 49ers lost 23-20 on the final play of the game, Smith was a mauler. On one play in the third quarter, he pushed aside his blocker and dropped Saints running back Mark Ingram for a 1-yard loss. Then, in the fourth quarter, Smith was a huge factor in forcing the Saints to settle for a field goal when it appeared they’d score a touchdown.
After marching from their own 20-yard line to the 49ers’ 3, where they faced third-and-goal, Smith fought through a double team to wrap up running back Pierre Thomas, who was trying to blast his way over left guard. New Orleans then had to kick a 21-yard field goal to cut the 49ers’ lead to 20-17 with 7:53 remaining in the game.
Former 49ers’ safety Ronnie Lott watched the play unfold on TV and tweeted out his applause. “Justin Smith is a trench warfare beast,” he wrote.
Smith had three tackles, plus a couple of hits on quarterback Drew Brees, just as he let the ball go. Pro Football Focus, in its analysis this week, noted that Smith dominated Saints left tackle Charles Brown. Twice in the fourth quarter, Brown allowed Smith to get pressures on Brees. Mike Triplett, who covers the Saints for ESPN.com, studied game video and noted Smith “had a few nice disruptions up front during the game.”
The Niners went into this season hoping to give their two veteran defensive ends, Smith and Ray McDonald, more snaps off to keep them fresh. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has been able to do that, and the result has been a revived Smith. His presence on the defensive line continues to make those around him better.
In June, the NFL Network ranked Smith 29th on its list of the top 100 players in the NFL. So far, it appears that ranking was spot on. Said teammate Alex Boone, who has had to block Smith in practices over the years: “He’s so good with his hands and his leverage. He understands where he is in a block and knows how to defeat it. Having to play him in training camp – that was a pain.” Added Rams tackle Rodger Saffold: “Even when you know (his) bull rush is coming, you can’t stop it.”
Next up for the challenge to handle Smith is Redskins left tackle Trent Williams. Washington (3-7) will host the 49ers on “Monday Night Football.”