NEW ORLEANS — Defensive lineman Justin Smith is on the cusp of something he has spent the past 12 years chasing: a Super Bowl championship. Just don't expect him to talk about it in any detail.
Asked this week to remark on how close he is to fulfilling a dream, Smith replied: "I think that's something you think about after the season. But right now, just getting as familiar as we can with Baltimore and what they do, and how we're gonna try to beat 'em."
That's Smith, the Missouri native, the man they call "Cowboy." Why analyze a situation or open up about your feelings when a simple "yup" or "nope" will suffice?
"One thing, he's not like a science professor," defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois said. "Most dudes when you ask a certain thing, they're gonna give you a breakdown. He's a straight shooter. He's gonna tell you what it is, he's gonna tell you how to get it done. He's not gonna break it down to you. Hopefully you get it when he's giving it to you."
Fortunately, Smith's teammates are willing to venture where he will not. They will tell you exactly what he does for the 49ers' defense, and what his steady presence brings to the locker room.
"He means a lot," cornerback Carlos Rogers said. "His experience, his ability to draw a double-team for the line — him and Aldon (Smith), the little connection they got up there. ... And his experience, his attitude, his work, his leadership, to have other guys follow in the direction that he's in. He's a lot to this team."
Asked how it feels to have Justin Smith in his corner, Aldon Smith replied: "Other than him being a threat and a badass out there, where we all know we got a guy who's ready to go to war with us? Feels good."
On the field, Justin Smith affects pretty much every other player on the defense. His ability to tie up blockers was one of the big reasons Aldon Smith was able to set a franchise record with 19? sacks this season. And the push he gets against offensive linemen, frequently straight up the middle, tends to deform the pocket, which means the defensive backs have to cover their men for one second less.
Justin Smith was a very good player during his seven seasons in Cincinnati. But his abilities weren't truly showcased until he came to San Francisco and found himself amidst more talented teammates. He has made the Pro Bowl each of the past four seasons. And this year, like last, he was voted All-Pro at two positions, defensive end and defensive tackle.
"He's a great player," Jean Francois said. "Hands down, he's possibly one of the best — I don't know what they list him as. D-tackle? D-end?"
Told that Smith usually carries a slash on the depth chart, Jean Francois said: "Well, he's gonna be the best slash player that we have."
Of course, Smith's value has always strayed way beyond the field. He is a serious worker in practice, and his weight-room workouts are legendary, as revealed by his barrel chest.
"When I got here, I was like 270, 280 pounds," Jean Francois noted. "I said, 'I gotta be like this guy. Every time I walk in the weight room, I gotta make sure I beat him.' ... There'll be days I go in there, I squat seven plates, and then later that day I try to find out what Justin did. ... Even though he's an older guy, he's still trying to show that he can hang with you younger guys any time of day."