Smith's return for 49ers is far from a given

Dan Arkush
Niners' faith in Justin Smith remains strong for now

Even though they don’t make football players any tougher than Justin Smith, our 49ers sources are not about to bet their mortgages that the defense’s emotional leader and anchor of the D-line will be recovered sufficiently enough from the partial tear of the left triceps tendon he suffered in the Week 15 win over New England to participate in the playoffs.

“It really depends on his pain threshold,” one daily team observer said. “Not playing in the regular-season finale will help, and so would, obviously, getting a first-round bye. But he really has a serious injury that is definitely going to require surgery.

“I would not be surprised if he does not play at all.”

If that ends up being the case, the consensus is that it would be a major loss the Niners could ill afford.

“At the beginning of the season, if you had to pick the one guy they would miss the most due to a serious injury, it would have to have been Justin,” the observer said. “They certainly didn’t react well to his absence in the second half of the New England game and the Seattle loss, and a lot of that was psychological.”

In Smith’s absence, the onus is on fourth-year pro Ricky Jean Francois to fill a huge void.

“He’s actually bigger than Justin (295 pounds, compared to Smith’s 285 pounds), so he adds a little bulk,” the observer said of Jean Francois. “And after looking bad on that early TD run by Marshawn Lynch in the Seattle game, he actually settled down and played pretty well (six tackles).

“But where the defense really gets hurt is in the pass rush, because of Smith’s great ability on stunts to free up (starting ROLB) Aldon (Smith) for sacks.

“That’s gone without Justin.”