The 49ers have a big problem with Justin Smith.
Even if he is able to play in the playoffs, a triceps injury is very painful, especially when the elbow gets beyond a normal range of motion. The 49ers probably would have to brace his arm and restrict how far he can extend it. This would limit his ability to push people away from his body and to play off blocks that require explosive strength. Also, it would inhibit his pass rush technique, like a bull rush or a butt and run with a jerk technique.
That’s the best-case scenario for the 49ers and Justin Smith. The worst case scenario is he misses the playoffs. Ray Lewis missed 12 weeks this season with a triceps tear.
The 49ers defense has looked terrible without Justin Smith the last six quarters. They’ve given up 73 points. We know how Smith physically affects the run defense and the pass rush, but the 49ers have six other Pro Bowlers on the defense. They should not turn into a sieve just because Justin Smith is out.
So why is his absence affecting the 49ers so dramatically? Could it be affecting the 49ers mentally?
He is their best player. It’s hard to overcome the loss of your best player in late December, right before the playoffs.
The 1990 Los Angeles Raiders lost their best player, Bo Jackson, in a divisional playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Kevin Walker tackled Bo from behind and dislocated his hip. The Raiders managed to win that game 20-10, but the next week they were annihilated by the Buffalo Bills 51-3.
Even without Bo, the Raiders should have put up a better fight in the AFC Championship game – they still had Howie Long and Marcus Allen. But they couldn’t mentally get past the loss of Bo, their stud.
Are the 49ers in a similar situation with Justin Smith?