The announcement that Justin Smith is retiring has brought out plenty of comments from former teammates and coaches. Jim Harbaugh's tweet about the greatest hustle play he has ever witnessed brings to mind one of the biggest 49ers plays of the last four seasons. There were plenty of big plays, but this play against the Philadelphia Eagles will go down as one of the biggest of the Harbaugh era.
The 49ers were facing the Eagles in Week 4 of the 2011 season. The 49ers were 2-1 with wins over the Seattle Seahawks and Cincinnati Bengals, and an overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys. We still weren't exactly sure what to make of this team, and things were not looking pretty heading into the second half of this game. The Eagles led 20-3 at halftime, and after a David Akers field goal was blocked to open the second half, Philadelphia added three more points.
The 49ers proceeded to slowly march back. The ensuing drive saw the 49ers quickly move down the field, with a 44-yard catch and run by Kendall Hunter. Josh Morgan got into the end zone on his own 30-yard catch and run. The 49ers forced a three and out, and then added a touchdown on their next drive, cutting the Eagles lead to 23-17.
There was some back and forth for much of the fourth quarter before a Frank Gore 12-yard touchdown run put the 49ers up 24-23 with three minutes left in the game. The Eagles took over at their own 20, and proceeded to chip away at the 49ers defense. They gained five yards, then eight yards, then eight more. A 5-yard gain followed by Ahmad Brooks jumping offsides set the Eagles up at the 49ers 49-yard line with 2:15 to go, a 2nd and 5 situation and two timeouts. Suffice to say, time was not an issue.
Michael Vick took the snap, and the Eagles proceeded to run a perfectly designed wide receiver screen pass. Well, it was perfectly designed without taking into account Justin Smith.
The 49ers were involved in numerous huge plays from 2011 to 2013, but this could be one of the biggest. If Maclin goes down without fumbling, the Eagles are down near the 30 with 2:06 left in the game. There's no guarantee they score, but it is easy to view that as a game-saving strip. Who knows what happens if the 49ers end up losing that game in heart-breaking fashion, but they won, and proceeded to win six consecutive games after that.
That play is but one example of the incredible hustle Justin Smith showed week in and week out. Here is one more example in a situation that was still important, but not quite at the level of the previous Eagles game. This play happened last season.
If Riley Cooper does not fumble the ball, he likely goes down in-bounds. The Eagles were out of timeouts, so the clock would have run out. Even if he had gotten out of bounds, the Eagles would have been looking at a 62-yard field goal attempt.
But the score and situation did not matter. Justin Smith never stopped hustling throughout his 14-year career. He did not put up gaudy stats, but he made hustle plays every single game. I don't know if it is possible to teach that kind of thing, but we'll see if the 49ers next era of defensive linemen have that in them.