SANTA CLARA — Jim Harbaugh has the utmost respect for a guy who dislocates his finger and pops it back in on his own. Harbaugh once did so himself during his 15-year NFL career as a quarterback.
Niners linebacker Aldon Smith popped his left middle finger back into place Sunday.
“That was pretty cool. If I did that I'd tell somebody, too,” Harbaugh said Monday. “I have done that before. That's a good battle scar to have.”
In his second game back from a nine-game NFL suspension, Smith looked a lot like his old dominant self with two sacks against Robert Griffin III in a 17-13 win against the Washington Redskins.
The 49ers (7-4) are counting on more of the same from No. 99 when they host the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks (7-4) on Thursday night in a rematch of the NFC title game and with playoff implications at stake for both teams. The teams will play twice in three weeks.
In January, Smith sacked and stripped Russell Wilson on the first play from scrimmage and recovered the fumble as San Francisco took an early 3-0 lead before losing 23-17 at CenturyLink Field.
Yet Smith hasn't played much football since then, serving a lengthy suspension for violations of the league's substance-abuse and personal-conduct policies.
“He's been playing amazing,” quarterback Colin Kaepernick said. “He started off the game great yesterday and he's going to keep getting better.”
That time off could play into Smith's favor, too.
“I don't have as many hits on my body as the guys who have been playing,” Smith said. “Hopefully that comes into play and matters Thursday.”
While he made plenty of impressive plays and blew past rookie Morgan Moses, the Redskins' fill-in left tackle, Smith insists he's still finding his way.
He made his first start Sunday after playing much of the win at New York the previous week.
“Probably later in the third going into the fourth quarter I started getting my rhythm back, and I'm still getting it,” Smith said. “Two sacks is good but I could have made some more plays.”
Smith couldn't practice with the team during his suspension, but credits his work to stay in shape and, as he neared the end of the penalty, returning to football drills. He also missed five games last year to undergo treatment following a September 2013 DUI arrest.
“Just putting myself in a position so when I come back I'm ready,” he said of his thinking. “I've still got some room to grow. We'll just keep getting better every week, that's the plan.”
Smith attended meetings and worked out at team headquarters but wasn't allowed to practice during his suspension. His teammates and coaches remained confident Smith would quickly make contributions, even if defensive coordinator Vic Fangio noted there was a bit of rust to his game.
“From my vantage point and the defensive coaches felt he played extremely well and keep honing it,” Harbaugh said. “He made plays. I thought he added 10 percent to our defense creating that pressure, the sacks, the hurries. If he feels like he can create more, all the better.”
Smith is just one example Harbaugh pointed to following another narrow victory. The 49ers are on a three-game winning streak after consecutive road wins the two previous weeks, at New Orleans and at the Giants.
San Francisco doesn't care about style points at this stage of the season. The 49ers have some much-needed momentum, and they will take it with Seattle coming to town.
“Make a deposit into the toughness account,” Harbaugh said. “We'll be able to make withdrawals from that later down the road. We want to keep making those deposits.”
Notes: LB NaVorro Bowman will continue to rehab his surgically repaired left knee this week that he hurt against Seattle in the NFC title game. He's not ready to practice. … RT Anthony Davis' status remained unclear as he works back from a concussion. “Believe he's still reporting symptoms today,” Harbaugh said.