SANTA CLARA The 49ers are hoping the veteran anchor of their defensive line, Justin Smith, can return from a painful and strength-sapping triceps injury in time for the playoffs.
The team's right defensive end, voted to his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl on Wednesday, hasn't played or practiced since leaving a Dec. 16 game against the New England Patriots early in the third quarter. It was revealed Thursday that Smith suffered a partial tear of his left triceps tendon, which attaches the triceps muscle to the elbow.
A team spokesman confirmed the injury and said the tear also caused a bone spur to detach in Smith's elbow, which is why the 49ers to this point have characterized it as an elbow injury.
Smith appeared to suffer the injury while fending off a Patriots offensive lineman. The play was innocuous, and it was similar in nature to the one that ended outside linebacker Parys Haralson's season.
Haralson suffered a complete tear of the triceps tendon during a preseason game against the Denver Broncos. He required surgery and was placed on injured reserve.
The injury is rare in the general population, but a number of NFL players have dealt with it in recent years. Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis, for instance, suffered a complete tear of his right triceps tendon Oct. 14. He had surgery, returned to practice Dec. 5, and there is a chance that he could play for the Ravens in the playoffs.
That's the hope for Smith as well.
He may need surgery in the offseason to remove the bone spur. But the 49ers believe he can rehabilitate his arm to the point where he is effective in the playoffs. A first-round bye would help that goal. The 49ers would achieve that with a win Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals coupled with a Minnesota Vikings win at home over the Green Bay Packers.
"He told me he's getting better each and every day," defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "That's really all I know. He said it's getting better."
Smith tried to return in the fourth quarter of the game in New England but could not. His absence coincided with the Patriots' 28-point comeback, and he also missed Sunday's 42-13 drubbing at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks, the most lopsided loss of the Jim Harbaugh era.
"You can't really put into words what he means to this defense," linebacker Patrick Willis said. "Justin is one of our team captains, but more than just a captain, he's a man that goes out there and leads by example. He doesn't say a whole lot. He only speaks when he has to. He goes out there and plays with heart. He's a guy that I look up to in this league."
Ricky Jean Francois filled in for Smith on Sunday and is slated to start at the position against the Cardinals.
Willis, however, said that every member of a defense that had six members, including Smith, voted to the Pro Bowl in February must elevate his game to compensate for the loss.
"Each person has to just take it up another notch," he said. "Ricky Jean is playing for Justin. He has to come in and play at a high level, which I know he will. At the end of the day, our defense has always been based on unselfish guys, guys who are going to go out and give it everything they have and play for one another."