'Love-hate' brace has Smith back like a beast

The protective brace and Justin Smith's left elbow got along just fine in their first game together last week in the NFC divisional playoffs. And Smith came out of that battle just fine – looking as strong as ever in helping the San Francisco defense get back on track against the Packers. Now "comfortable" with his brace, Smith expects to be even better in this week's NFC title game.

Smith, in his first action since partially tearing his left triceps early in the third quarter of San Francisco's victory at New England on Dec. 16, was pretty darn good in the Niners' 45-31 triumph over Green Bay.

With uncertainty swirling around his ability to hold up and be effective with a possible debilitating injury, Smith played from start to finish and displayed the beast-like tendencies that have made him an All-Pro the past two seasons and such an important part of what the 49ers want to do on defense.

Smith finished fourth on the team with five tackles, and he did not exhibit any signs of limited strength or effectiveness in the trenches despite having the cumbersome brace attached to his left arm.

The brace will be back on Sunday in the NFC Championship Game at Atlanta, but so Will Smith, a week more removed from his injury and salivating at the opportunity to help get the 49ers get to the Super Bowl after last year's near-miss loss to New York in the NFC title game.

That's not exactly to say that Smith considers the brace his friend.

"It's a love-hate relationship right now, but it's one of those things and it's doing its job," Smith said this week, with the brace absent from his elbow during media interviews and Smith looking no worse for wear in one of his rare appearances before reporters. "It felt pretty strong, and doing anything the second time is better than the first time. So it should definitely be a lot better, a lot more comfortable and everything."

That's a thought that should be making the Falcons uncomfortable, because a strong Smith is something that could cause them plenty of problems on offense.

The San Francisco defense was assaulted for big yardage and points by both the Patriots and Seattle Seahawks over a six-quarter stretch after Smith went down with his injury, but things were much more back to normal against the Packers, with Smith helping the 49ers thwart the explosive Green Bay offense in so many ways as the Niners took total control in the second half after leading just 24-21 at halftime.

"Justin is what he is to us, a guy that's going to come out there and give it everything he's got on every play and that's what we love about him," Niners linebacker and defensive leader Patrick Willis said. "We're just glad to have him back in there.

"Anytime he's out there, you have to account for him. You have to almost put two guys on him because if you don't, that's a chance he has to win. And even when you're putting two guys on him he still can have a chance to win. So anytime you have a guy of that magnitude, it's great to have him out there. It was amazing to see him back out there. He's a big part of our defense, and anytime we can have all starting 11 guys out there, that breeds confidence in this defense, it breeds confidence in one another."

Smith is obviously feeling more confident in his ability to play with his injury after he held up so well against the Packers. After an early feeling-out process last Saturday during all-out contact in the trenches, Smith's concerns about the brace evaporated and he could let himself play with the unrestricted energy and effort that has characterized his play over the past four seasons, each of which have ended with Smith earning Pro Bowl honors.

After making it through the Packers game, he'll be worrying about the injury even less this week.

"It's like anything," Smith said. "It's half torn or whatever, and it can tear the rest of the way. So not really concerned about it. I'm just going to go out there, do the best I can and see what happens.

"I think it felt pretty good for the most part, just getting used to it and playing with it. It should be even better this week after going through it, knowing how it felt, what to expect from it. So it should be a lot better this week. I figured they would put me in the best (brace) they possibly could and it did its job. There's still a comfort level of getting used to it and just mentally going out there, coming out of the game knowing the way it feels and felt during the game. I'll be a lot more comfortable playing with it this week."

And that's good news for the Niners, who looked back in their comfort zone on defense with Smith back creating havoc while anchoring their front line.

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