Healthy Justin Smith key to Niners’ defense 

click to enlarge Justin Smith is a key player if the 49ers want to go all the way to the Super Bowl. - GETTY IMAGES FILE PHOTO
  • Getty Images File Photo
  • Justin Smith is a key player if the 49ers want to go all the way to the Super Bowl.

Even at less than full strength, Justin Smith’s presence on the 49ers’ defensive line is enough to instill plenty of fear in opposing offenses.

Or even his own teammates, for that matter. Running back Frank Gore endured his toughest training camp yet last summer while facing his defensive teammates each day — Smith, in particular.

“I’d take a 75 percent Justin ahead of anybody,” Gore said Wednesday. “At 75-80 percent, he’s better than anybody at his position. ... I’m not scared, haaa! But he’s a beast, man.”

Smith is expected to return to the field for Saturday night’s NFC divisional playoff game against Green Bay (12-5) at Candlestick Park, and, oh, how his teammates will welcome back “The Cowboy” as they try to chase down Aaron Rodgers and Co.

Smith, the soft-spoken emotional leader of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s unit, missed the final two regular-season games with a partially torn left triceps muscle. His arm is now covered in a protective brace for practice, and everybody involved expects him to be ready to play for the NFC West champions (11-4-1).

Coach Jim Harbaugh put it this way Wednesday: “God willing and the creek don’t rise, he will play.”

Having the extra week of rest was a huge help for Smith’s health. San Francisco secured the NFC’s No. 2 seed with a win against Arizona and when Minnesota beat Green Bay in Week 17.

It is the versatile Smith who makes this defense go — with his stingy pass-rushing and run-stopping. Sure, there’s Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith. And a talented, playmaking secondary.

Smith is a smash-mouth footballer to the core. The definition of the blue-collar player Harbaugh so loves. Smith chips his teeth about once a season thanks to a refusal to wear a mouth guard because it restricts his breathing.

“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 said earlier in the 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.”

No matter that Smith doesn’t own the flashy numbers or statistics of the NFL’s more well-known defensive stars, some on his team. Smith, who spent his first seven NFL seasons with Cincinnati before joining the 49ers as a free agent in 2008, was picked as a starter for this year’s Pro Bowl.

And he is the league’s top tackler among defensive linemen since 2001 with 792.

“We need Justin,” Brooks said. “It changes the whole attitude of the defense.”

Notes: Harbaugh has yet to announce his starting kicker — newly signed Billy Cundiff or struggling veteran David Akers. “No, not one that we’re ready to announce yet,” Harbaugh said. When asked if it might come down to 90 minutes before kickoff when inactives are named, the coach said, “that’s possible.”... Harbaugh said Candlestick Park received new turf several weeks ago. “I thought it was OK,” he said. “It’s not like it is in September. Most grass fields tend not to be as lush in the winter months.”

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