As the 49ers defense started to crumble in the late second half, a Niners Nation's lonely eyes turned toward one man - and he wasn't even on the field.
During the third quarter of play, Justin Smith sustained an elbow injury and left the game. He would return for one play before exiting again. In the interim, the defense started to slacken its stranglehold on the Patriots' offense. Even though Ricky Jean Francois performed as admirably well as any back up to Justin Smith could be expected to play, it was clear that an important cog in the line was gone.
Justin Smith will undergo an MRI today, but did not provide any further information about the injury. I believe that I speak for all of us when I say that we want Smith's consecutive streak of 185 starts to continue this week against the Seahawks; it's better to fully heal up, though, with the playoffs looming.
With Justin Smith out, the play of another Smith took a step down. Aldon Smith snagged his first career interception this game, but did not get an accompanying sack to add to his impressive sophomore campaign. This may be a bit anecdotal, but my impression was that Aldon was getting a decent amount of pressure to start the game - enough that the sack seemed a bit inevitable. Once Justin exited, however, his pressure took a step back. If I may be permitted to bandy about another anecdotal observation, methinks some serious holding should have been called but wasn't. Aldon probably got the short end of the stick on that one.
Ricky Jean Francois, however, ended the game with a nice sack to help close out the fourth quarter.