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2011 49ers Grades: Justin Smith

This image just about sums up everything we need to know about 49ers defensive end/tackle Justin Smith. The man they call Cowboy will physically overwhelm offensive linemen, but he also will not give up on a play, even if it seems impossible to finish. In this particular picture, Justin Smith pushed Jermon Bushrod backwards into Drew Brees and then proceeded to reach over Bushrod to grab Brees from behind. It was one of the most amazing defensive plays I've ever seen.

Prior to 2011, Justin Smith had quietly put together a very strong three-year run with the 49ers. He was a leader of the defense and seemed to be involved in just about every play. His statistical numbers have always been solid, but not eye-popping in a general context. Of course, when you consider the normal role of a 3-4 defensive end (often simply occupying blockers to open holes for the outside linebackers), his numbers look all the more impressive.

In 2012, Justin Smith got much deserved publicity as the 49ers defense guided the team back to relevancy and a berth in the NFC Championship Game. Smith received nation-wide praise and suggestions that he should have been awarded NFL Defensive Player of the Year. While he did not get the award, it does not take away from a spectacular season.

Smith operated as almost a closer for the team on several occasions. The most well-known play, and arguably the most important of the first quarter of the season, saw Smith run down Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and strip the ball from him. Dashon Goldson fell on the fumble and the 49ers put the game away. Had Maclin not fumbled the ball, the Eagles would have been in field goal range (a 49-yard field goal) with a chance to run down the clock and beat the 49ers.

Another great play came when he batted down Eli Manning's pass near the end of the 49ers-Giants regular season game. We don't know if Eli would have connected on a touchdown pass, but I'd imagine there were plenty of queasy stomachs leading up to that deflection.

It seemed like whenever the 49ers needed a big play from the defense Justin Smith was getting involved. For a 49ers defense that swarmed all over the field, Justin Smith really was the leader of that group and will remain a key cog moving forward.

As we head into 2012, Smith will turn 33 on September 30 (it amazes me that I'm a month and a half older than Justin Smith!). At some point, Smith will come back to earth. We don't know when it will happen, but it remains a possibility at some point in the future. Ricky Jean-Francois operates as the primary backup at all three defensive line positions. Demarcus Dobbs will get a chance to earn some playing time behind Justin Smith. It will be interesting to see if the 49ers look at defensive line options in the draft and whether they consider Demarcus Dobbs a significant option as a potential replacement down the line.

2011 highlights

  • With 7.5 sacks on the season, Smith became just the 3rd player in franchise history to register at least 6 sacks in four consecutive seasons.
  • Posted his 11th career multi-sack game with 2 sacks vsl Seattle (9/11 - QB Tarvaris Jackson), notching a sack in three of the past four years on opening day.
  • Recorded a game-changing FF on the 49ers 31-yard line (WR Jeremy Maclin) at Phi. (10/2) that S Dashon Goldson recovered, stopping a from-behind 49ers 25-19 victory.
  • Delivered 1.5 sacks and 9 tackles (8 solo) at Detroit (10/16) in come-from-behind 49ers 25-19 victory
  • Smith batted down Giants QB Eli Manning's 4th-down pass from the 10-yd. line deep in 49ers territory with 34 seconds remaining to preserve a 27-20 victory vs. NYG (11/13).
  • Helped limit the Rams to just 31 rushing yards without allowing a rushing first down vs. StL (12/4). This marked the first time the 49ers defense did not allow a rushing first down since 11/29/10 at Arz.
  • Recorded is third FF of the year at Arizona (12/11) after taking down QB Kevin Kolb for his 5.5 sack on the season.
  • Picked up his first FR of the seaosn and 8th of his career after DT Ray McDonald and LB Aldon Smith sacked QB Ben Roethlisberger vs. Pittsburgh (12/19). The takeaway led to a 5-yard touchdown run by RB Frank Gore to give the 49ers a 20-3 lead.
  • Brought down Saints QB Drew Brees for a 9-yard loss in the third quarter vs. New Orleans (1/14) in the NFC Divisional Round
  • Posted a season-high 12 tackles vs. NYG (1/22) in the NFC Championship Game