Justin Smith's Return Has 49ers Optimistic

Defensive lineman is able to practice for first time since triceps injury, says he'll be ready to play next Saturday

To his 49ers teammates and opponents, Justin Smith is one, tough football player.

So it’s really been no surprise that the All-Pro defensive lineman – who suffered a partially torn triceps in the win over the New England Patriots on Dec. 16 – was back on the practice field Thursday and promising to play in San Francisco’s playoff opener Jan. 12.

Smith, who hasn’t played since suffering the injury, participated in practice for the first time since he was hurt and wore a large brace on his left arm.

“It felt good for what we did today,” Smith told the San Francisco Chronicle. “So go out there and see what happens.”

With Smith, the 49ers are among the best defensive teams in the league. Smith, a perennial Pro Bowler who plays right defensive end in the 49ers’ 3-4 scheme, is a force both against the run and as a pass rusher. He draws double teams and allows outside linebacker Aldon Smith a path to the quarterback and takes blockers away from inside linebackers Patrick Willis an NaVorro Bowman.

It’s uncertain how much strength Justin Smith will have in his left arm to take on blockers, but Smith – nicknamed “Cowboy” – says he will give it his best shot.

“You just go out there and play until you can’t,” he told reporters Thursday. “And be ready. I feel like I’ll be ready.”

Smith has told the media he’s been feeling better each week since the injury. He may have to have surgery in the offseason to address the problem, but is hoping he can play through it in the playoffs.

The 11-4-1 49ers, who won the NFC West, will host an opponent to be determined by this weekend’s wild-card games.

Former NFL fullback Lorenzo Neal, who knows Smith well, said in a radio interview this week that he believes the 49ers standout can still be effective, even if he’s not 100 percent fit.

“Justin likes to punch and lockout, so he’s going to play and be limited,” Neal said on 95.7 The Game, according to Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. “He’ll have one arm to punch with; I think the other arm will be more to grab and wrap and tackle. He can still play, but it will be hard for him to punch and hit and read – he’s one of the best defensive linemen at that. I think they are going to lose something by not having a 100 percent Justin Smith.”

Added Neal: “He’s a tough guy. You know if this guy can go, he’s going to go.”

Smith has said he believes he can’t do more harm to the triceps by playing, and can help his team make a run toward a Super Bowl. The 49ers also have reported that Smith has a bone chip loose in the elbow because of the triceps injury.

In Smith’s absence, Ricky Jean Francois has played his position.

Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh is optimistic Smith can be in the starting lineup Jan. 12 at Candlestick Park.

“Hopeful for that, that he continues to progress like he has each week, having the strength return,” Harbaugh said.

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