The 49ers’ defense is that much more stingy with Justin Smith on the field.
Anyone in his own locker room or elsewhere will emphatically say as much. So, perhaps the most important part of San Francisco securing a first-round playoff bye is the chance to get the defensive menace back for its playoff opener.
The Cowboy, as the Midwesterner is so respectfully referred to by coaches and teammates, is nursing a partially torn left triceps muscle. It sidelined him for the final two regular-season games with the NFC West champion Niners (11-4-1). Coach Jim Harbaugh’s hope — and the one of everybody in the Bay Area, for that matter — is that an extra week before the NFC divisional playoffs will do plenty to heal the lineman for what San Francisco expects to be a special postseason run all the way to the Super Bowl.
Whether or not the Niners have Smith will determine a lot in how far the franchise goes after last year’s near miss in overtime of the NFC championship game against eventual champion New York.
“All I have to say to that is saddle up. He’s coming,” said Ricky Jean Francois, who started in Smith’s place the last two games. “He’s got his horse. He got a thoroughbred. He’s coming.”
That certainly seemed to be the case Thursday, when the team returned to practice following a three-day break. Smith went through position drills sporting a bulky black brace on his troublesome arm — but was in a regular white jersey, not a no-contact black uniform.
“It couldn’t hurt anything,” Smith said of the extra time. “We’ll see how it is and go from there. It felt good for what we did today. We really haven’t played or done anything yet. Hopefully they’ll run right at me and we’ll find out quick.”
The pass rush lacks without Smith. So does linebacker Aldon Smith, who went the final three games without a sack to finish with 19½ and three shy of Michael Strahan’s single-season record.
Harbaugh, who wasn’t scheduled to be available to the media again until today at the earliest, said this past Monday that Smith had made “significant progress,” and the coach remained hopeful of getting him back for the playoffs.
Tight end Vernon Davis is among those willing Smith to get back to his former dominant self. Davis liked the new red NFC West champion hat he pulled on last Sunday night just fine. But he also pointed at his ring finger, where there’s a vacant spot waiting for a Super Bowl bauble. He said that, too.
“It feels great. It’ll be better when I get this, though,” Davis said, looking down at his empty finger. “It’s like we get a whole other opportunity to try it again. Last year we got two shots to get there, and we failed in the second one. Now, we’ve got it on the tip of our fingers again. We’ve just got to go grab it.”