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As the 49ers savor their turnaround season and ponder what now looks like a bright future, they know they have one very large pillar to build around.
It's defense where the 49ers shine, and it was the foundation for a 13-3 season – a consistent force that kept San Francisco in every game. And it’s on defense where the 49ers have standouts galore, from inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman to young pass-rush specialist Aldon Smith to cornerback Carlos Rogers and safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner.
But the man around whom the defense revolves is a 6-foot-4, 285-pound veteran they call “Cowboy,” lineman Justin Smith.
Smith, named All-Pro this season, is up for the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award, which will be announced Saturday in Indianapolis.
Smith likely won’t win the honor, because his numbers pale in comparison with some others. Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, for instance, had 22 sacks this season, a phenomenal total. Smith had 7½.
But Smith does more than make sacks and tackles. On every play, rival offenses have to take him into consideration, often double-teaming him, which allows other defenders to make the tackles. But, as a defensive lineman in a 3-4 defense, that’s part of Smith’s role – occupy blockers, disrupt blocking schemes to free up linebackers and create as much havoc as possible.
“Anytime Justin is out there, he’s a wrecking machine,” 49ers offensive tackle Adam Boone told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Ron Kroichick last month.
Smith, wrote Kroichick in January, is known around the NFL for his amazing strength. Smith grew up on a farm in Missouri, lifting and hauling heavy bales of hay and doing all sorts of physical labor necessarily to keep a farm functional.
His arms, extending from his 49ers jersey, appear Popeye-esque.
The former first-round pick of the Bengals in 2001 played seven seasons in Cincinnati before coming to San Francisco in 2008. Since joining the Niners he hasn’t missed a game and has been a play-maker. This season he had 58 tackles, forced three fumbles – including one late in a win over the Eagles that was crucial – and batted down an Eli Manning pass that preserved a victory over the Giants in the regular season.
Then, in the playoffs, Smith showed the rest of the NFL and national TV audiences what he’s all about with a pair of amazing sacks. Against both the Saints and Giants, he bull-rushed opposing tackles, pushing them far into the backfield, then reached out with a free hand to pull down quarterbacks Drew Brees and Manning for sacks.
They were plays that epitomized the physical, relentless play of both Smith and the entire Niners’ defensive unit.
Teammate Joe Staley told the Chronicle that Smith’s playoff feats were nothing new.
“We’ve seen him do that to a million different tackles,” the offensive tackle told Kroichick. “I’m just glad he’s on our team. I’d hate to have to match up against Justin.”
At age 32, Smith likely will be around awhile. He still has two years remaining on a six-year, $45 million deal that included $20 million in guarantees.
“I think it will be a great fit,” said Smith, when he signed the free-agent deal in March of 2008.
His teammates and coaches couldn’t agree more.