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What's crazy is a soon-to-be 33-year-old playing nine out of every 10 snaps for a full season, at a position where he is constantly pounded on, and still dominating. The 49ers ranked No. 1 against the run in 2011 and No. 2 in points allowed. Smith was the linchpin. He plays on the right end in San Francisco's fluid 3--4 scheme (hence the Pro Bowl votes at tackle) and consistently occupies two blockers, if not three, so that the linebackers can flow and make plays. Teammates and opponents alike call him "country strong," meaning he has tremendous functional strength. He can toss blockers around like those hay bales from his summers in Missouri.
Smith has also become a student of the game, something that couldn't be said during his seven seasons with the Bengals. "He would get his DVD cutups and joke that he was going to use them as coasters when he got home," former Cincy defensive tackle John Thornton says. "That was Justin. Everyone knew he didn't have to know everything, because he was going to go out there and play hard and make plays anyway."
That batted pass against the Giants, in a victory that helped earn the 49ers home field in the playoffs, is evidence of his new penchant for study. With 37 seconds left at Candlestick, New York had fourth-and-two at the San Francisco 10, trailing by seven. Some might have thought Smith was in the right place to knock down Manning's attempt because he was lucky or he had failed to push up into the pocket out of fatigue. But Smith was where he was on that play because he'd been in the film room during the week.
"He told us in the huddle what was going to happen," says Niners linebacker Parys Haralson. "He said they were going to get rid of the ball quick, so get your hands up. The dude is always thinking out there."
Haralson, like most of his San Francisco teammates, can't speak about their All-Pro end without smiling. Smith has a nickname for everyone, and if he doesn't, his default moniker is Stud. His sense of humor is sharp and dry. But sometimes it does sail over his teammates' heads, like during a game when he said an opposing tackle had his furniture out of order. "His chest is in his drawers," he finally explained.
Normally Smith saves serious comments for small groups, but in the off-season he spoke to the assembled Niners about seizing the moment, because this defense likely won't be together for long. San Francisco has all 11 starters back, but safety Deshon Goldson's contract expires after this season, and four others—linebacker NaVorro Bowman, cornerback Tarell Brown, safety Donte Whitner and Smith himself—have deals scheduled to end after 2013. "I know with some of the guys we have and with free agency, we're not going to be able to keep this team together forever," he told the local media. "Even agewise, the whole team won't be the same."
During the lean times with the Bengals, who had only one winning season in his seven there, Smith consoled himself by saying he'd played as hard as he could. It wasn't that he accepted losing, but he needed a way to cope with it. In San Francisco he has a team capable of winning the Super Bowl, which is why last season's loss in the conference final cut him in a way no loss had before.
"You realize just how close you were," he says.
If the 49ers take the next step and win the title, he might realize something else: A little attention isn't so bad after all.