49ers key to success: DE Justin Smith

Justin Smith was a prototype 4-3 defensive end when he came to the 49ers in 2008, having played the position throughout his football life. Now he's one of the most respected, productive and feared 3-4 ends in the NFL. Smith just keeps getting better as he enters a new season as the undisputed leader of the Niners' defensive line, a unit in transition that will be counting on him to show the way.

Smith has shown how it's done since joining the 49ers, where the 285-pound iron man has adjusted to the interior pounding his position demands while steadily crafting three of the finest seasons of his career, the last two of which have landed Smith in the Pro Bowl.

The Niners will be counting on him as much as ever this year as they re-tool a defense that has lost four 16-game starters from last season.

One of those guys, Aubrayo Franklin, has lined up next to Smith at nose tackle since Smith's arrival in San Francisco, helping hold up the right side of the defensive front against offensive linemen that often out-weigh Smith by 30 pounds or more.

But with veteran Isaac Sopoaga sliding over from left end to replace Franklin at nose tackle, and Ray McDonald stepping in as the new left end after being retained by the Niners with a $20 million deal in free agency, Smith doesn't expect the 49ers to miss a beat.

In fact, Smith is excited about the potential of the new configuration up front, saying Sopoaga, "is built to play that position anyway, just a cinderblock of a dude down there," and that McDonald, who was one of San Francisco's most effective pass rushers last season, "is going to be one of the best 3-4 linemen in the league in the next few years."

Since Smith already has established himself as one of those, the 49ers might really have something going here.

With young veteran Ricky Jean Francois also returning along the line, Smith envisions that the unit will continue to build on a strong foundation that has been established by fiery line coach Jim Tomsula.

"One of the best parts about playing here," Smith said, "is we all get it. We all work together and I think that's how we've been able to have a little success stopping the run and getting after the passer that we've had. We all really know each other, we work well together, and it seems like we're shaping up pretty good."

How well Smith shapes up in his 11th NFL season will be instrumental in the 3-4 system being installed by new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. In a similar scheme directed by coordinator Greg Manusky the past three years, Smith was usually making more tackles and compiling more sacks than just about any San Francisco defender, even though part of his role is to tie up those bigger offensive linemen so that other defenders can make plays.

But Smith has found a way to become a playmaker himself within the system, even though he's undersized for his position. He led the 49ers last year with 8.5 sacks, tying his career high, and his 107 tackles were third on the team behind linebackers Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes, two players who have benefitted from having Smith tying up attention in front of them.

It was a career season for Smith at age 31. He was an indispensable component of a San Francisco unit that ranked sixth in the NFL in rushing defense, and he also keyed the Niners' pass rush with team-leading totals of 48 quarterback hits, 73 quarterback pressures and 13 tackles for loss.

Smith, who took charge as a team leader in player-organized workout sessions during the NFL lockout earlier this year, looks primed for more big things this year as he puts forth his usual top effort in summer practice. Needless to say, new head coach Jim Harbaugh has been impressed with what he has seen.

"Justin Smith has been a quintessential pro, every single day," Harbaugh said.

Smith also has been a model of durability. He'll take a streak of 155 consecutive starts into the regular season, which is almost twice as long as any other NFL defensive tackle and ranks third in the league among all defenders. Smith's 668 official tackles since he entered the NFL in 2001 also leads all other defensive tackles during that span by a considerable margin.

Smith has been adding to his numbers in a big way in recent seasons even while staying true to the role he must play within the 3-4 system. But talent and experience have allowed him to thrive as an individual standout.

"The biggest difference in a 3-4 is knowing when you can take your shot to make that play," Smith said. "On a lot of them, you are going to get doubled, you are holding up the block and keeping the linebackers free. But you'll get your chances in there. And when you know when that opportunity is, you take advantage of it."

Nobody among the 49ers has done that much better than Justin Smith, a pillar of strength along the defensive line that once again this season will be a major key in the team's quest for success.

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