By PHIL BARBER
Heading into each of the 49ers’ two playoff games, one of the big issues facing the team was the health of defensive lineman Justin Smith. In case you had any lingering doubts, the Baltimore Ravens’ offensive linemen have seen the film, and they will tell you that Smith wasn’t diminished in either of those games.
“No, I don’t think so,” right guard Marshal Yanda said. “I think he’s still playing at a high level. He looks just as strong, he looks just as quick, and I don’t think that we’re gonna see anything but 100 percent out of him.”
“No,” center Matt Birk echoed. “I mean, the guy’s unbelievable. Just such a disruptive force, run and pass. … There’s no drop-off there.”
Smith told reporters Wednesday that his left triceps tendon is torn about 50 percent – “a little bit over, maybe.” He has not scheduled surgery.
“I really haven’t gone to the doctors yet,” he said. “I figure I will do that after the Super Bowl.”
Meanwhile, the Ravens are left to prepare for the 49ers’ defensive “slash,” a guy who garnered All-Pro status at both defensive tackle and defensive end. Wednesday, they sounded more awed by Smith than hyped up to face him.
“You really have to put two guys on him to account for him,” Birk said. “At the point of attack he’s so strong, on the backside he’s so hard to cut off. But he obviously – just watching film – has, apart from all the physical tools, a great understanding of the game and how to play, what his job is on a certain defensive call.”
Justin Smith has done some of his best work this year on stunts, or “games,” with outside linebacker Aldon Smith. One reason Aldon wound up with a franchise-record 19½ sacks is that he so frequently had a clear path through the A gap, thanks to Justin’s interference.
“Because he’s so physical and gets so much penetration, really the key to that game is he gets so much penetration he puts the tackle and guard on different levels,” Birk explained. “The offensive line should be on the same level so you can pass off those twists. But he’s as good as anybody in putting a dent in that gap and making it very difficult to do that.”
Earlier this season, New York Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said that Justin Smith “gets away with murder,” holding offensive linemen on those twists. According to the Ravens, Justin doesn’t do anything most other defensive linemen aren’t doing. He just does it better.
“A lot of guys, (you) can just break that. A lot of guys, you shove ’em,” Yanda said. “But he’s so strong he’ll grab you, and you better get away from him. If you let him get into your chest, and he holds you, you ain’t breaking loose. I’ve watched all the guards, and even the really good ones, and you let him into your chest and he grabs you, you ain’t getting away. I mean, he’s really strong.”
Asked to describe his style as a pass rusher, Justin said: “You are working in a phone booth in there. You’ve got to deal with the center, so you don’t have a lot of room for moves, which works out good for me since I don’t have any. I try to go right through them.”
And that, the Ravens agree, is another thing Smith does better than just about any other D-lineman in the league.
“He’s a really strong guy,” Yanda said. “His biggest attribute is he is stroonng. When he grabs a guy, he grabs him. When he bull rushes a guy, the guy’s going backwards. And you’ll see him sometimes on film where he’ll shove a guy, and a 330-pound lineman will go flying. And that don’t happen in the NFL too often.”