SANTA CLARA, Calif. - 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith is back to his hold self after dealing with shoulder and arm injuries in the prior two seasons. The 35-year-old has anchored the NFL's fourth-ranked defense despite a number of key pieces missing.
Smith is signed through next season, but will wait until after this year before deciding if he wants to come back to San Francisco's talented defensive front.
"I haven’t given it any thought, no," Smith said Wednesday.
Smith's play has been critical for San Francisco as they battle for a fourth straight postseason berth. At his weak side defensive end position in the team's 3-4 scheme, he's responsible for eating up blockers and allowing his inside linebackers to clog the lanes and make plays on the ball carriers.
And without former All-Pros NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, Smith's play has allowed rookie Chris Borland and former reserve Michael Wilhoite to step in without a hiccup. Borland leads San Francisco with 80 tackles, despite getting defensive snaps in just the last six and a half games.
"Obviously, we must have some good depth. Borland’s come in there, done some stuff you really can’t teach. I think he’s going to be a special player down the road," Smith said.
The 14-year veteran is Pro Football Focus' third-ranked defensive end against the run and tied for fifth with five sacks. Being healthy for the first time in three seasons has certainly contributed.
"Especially compared to the last few years," Smith said. "I feel better and hopefully we can get it rolling, get this thing back on track and make a run."
The 49ers are 7-5 after their troubling Thanksgiving night loss to the Seattle Seahawks. They make the short trip up Interstate 80 Sunday to play the 11-loss Raiders Sunday, coming off their 52-0 beat down at the hands of the St. Louis Rams.
Oakland's offense is dead last in the NFL in scoring, averaging 14.7 points per game. Rookie quarterback Derek Carr, while showing signs of promise, has been forced to lead the team with a dreary running attack that's also ranked last in the league.
But coming off that 52-point drubbing last week, Smith is expecting a tough game - much like Raiders defensive lineman Justin Tuck when he described Sunday's game as a potential "bloodbath."
"We know what kind of game it’s going to be. I’m sure everybody’s going to write them off. But we definitely aren’t. We’re expecting a good match up," Smith said.