Posted: Tuesday January 17, 2012 11:34AM ; Updated: Tuesday January 17, 2012 2:43PM
Ann Killion
Ann Killion>INSIDE THE NFL

Surprising 49ers take their cues from inspired, mighty DE Smith

Story Highlights

Justin Smith dominated against the Saints, had a number of big plays all season

Jim Harbaugh is at a loss to find another player he's known as tough as Smith

Smith has mentored rookie Aldon Smith, as the first-year player tallied 14 sacks

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Justin Smith
Justin Smith was a nightmare for the Saints' offensive line, pushing through to pressure Drew Brees repeatedly.
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- If you're looking for a play that illustrates the toughness and determination of the San Francisco 49ers defense, Justin Smith can provide it.

There's the play on 3rd-and-17 in the fourth quarter of Saturday's NFC playoff game, when he pushed left tackle Jermon Bushrod backward several yards -- as though Bushrod was a blocking sled or a wheeled mannequin -- directly into Drew Brees. And then reached a giant paw over Bushrod to grab the back of Brees' jersey, pulling himself off the ground in the process.

Don't like that one? Then, what about the play in the November game against the Giants when Smith, exhausted from rushing Eli Manning 40 times, managed to leap in the air and bat Manning's last gasp fourth-down pass to the ground?

Or you could pick the moment that many consider the first hint that this 49ers team was a real force: when 290-pound Smith chased down speedy wide receiver Jeremy Maclin from behind and stripped the ball from him, helping to secure the 49ers' come-from-behind victory in Philadelphia in October.

The face of the 49ers defense might be linebacker Patrick Willis. But the biggest plays on the defense's highlight reel have belonged to the guy they call "Cowboy."

"I don't think there is a tougher player that I've ever been around or known or a tougher person," said head coach Jim Harbaugh, who -- it should be noted -- played on the same team with Mike Singletary. "I was talking with (defensive coaches) about the same thing. Do you know a tougher guy than Justin Smith? Have you ever been around a player like this? We really couldn't come up with one."

Smith is the kind of player who has his coaches huddling in the hallways and extolling his virtues. Somebody has to do it. Notoriously media-evasive, Smith tried to dodge the mass of cameras, saying, "I'll talk Monday." When reminded it was Monday, he finally offered a few minutes to talk about being in the playoffs

"The opportunities are far and few between," he said. "And you've got to make the most of it."

Smith is the cover boy for far-and-few between. Literally. He's been to the playoffs once in his 11 years -- when the Cincinnati Bengals lost to Pittsburgh in the 2006 wild-card round. To drive home how difficult it is to have playoff success, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio put Smith's face on the front of the team's defensive playbook with the record 0-1 underneath.

In 2008, Smith joined the 49ers as a free agent. Then-coach Mike Nolan tried to sell him on San Francisco with a helicopter tour over Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. Smith, whose preference is for open ranchland, was just looking for a good defense.

"I came out here with the intention of joining a talented defense, being another piece," he said. "That was my whole goal."

Three coaches later, the defense is one of the best in the league. Before Harbaugh was able to work with his team, Smith acted as a leader during the lockout, gathering with his defensive teammates at San Jose State in the spring while Alex Smith orchestrated a "Camp Alex" for the offense.

"He pretty much came up with all the workouts," said his linemate Ray McDonald.

Once the season started, Smith continued his tutoring, taking the 49ers' top draft pick, Aldon Smith, under his massive arm. Justin Smith broke the sack record at Missouri in 2001 with 11 sacks and became a first-round draft pick for the Bengals. A decade later, Aldon Smith broke Justin's record with 11.5 sacks. Aldon Smith led the 49ers in sacks this season with 14.

"They've kind of had a big brother-little brother relationship," Fangio said earlier this season. "Aldon has been able to elevate his game because he's seen how much toughness and tenacity enters into this equation."

Sunday's championship game will be a showcase for defensive linemen. The Giants' front will be trying to pressure Alex Smith. Before their last meeting, Justin Tuck belittled Alex Smith's role, saying the 49ers just ask him not to lose the game. Justin Smith may not want to talk much about himself, but he seemed happy to talk about his newly respected quarterback.

"With what he's been through here and the way he's handled himself, it's a good example for all the guys in how to do it," he said. "Hopefully, he's got the game manager label -- or whatever that label is -- off of him. Just put 'baller' on there."

On Saturday, Justin and Alex Smith played together on offense. In addition to playing all 80 snaps on defense, Justin played three on offense, inserted as an extra blocker.

"You just go out there and run into your guy -- it's not a complicated thing," he said. "They dumbed it down for me so I didn't have to learn a whole bunch."

But the play that was really stunning was the push on Bushrod

"He's just a dominant player," tackle Joe Staley said. "I'm glad he's on our team. I'd hate to have to match up against Justin Smith."

In trying to describe Smith, Harbaugh was scrambling to find the line from Spinal Tap.

"There's the line from that movie," Harbaugh said. "You can't be any better than 10 out of 10. Then he finds a way to take it up another notch on the ladder, when you didn't think there was another notch to go. Is there an 11 out of 10? Is there such a thing? Is there a 12 out of 10? He just keeps finding another rung."

Smith goes to 11. All the time.

 
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