Though the 49ers have yet to rule linebacker Aldon Smith as active for Sunday’s game against Carolina, the Panthers are preparing as if Smith, one of the league’s best pass rushers will play.
Smith, a Pro Bowl linebacker who had 30.5 sacks in his first 27 games in the NFL, returned to San Francisco last week after spending nearly a month in a voluntary rehab facility following an arrest for suspicion of a DUI.
He’s still on the team’s non-football injury list, but he could return this week after a five-game absence.
“The biggest thing more than anything else is his game conditioning,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “The challenge is being able to block him. He’s so quick, he’s got a great first step, he gets vertical very quickly, he’s got long arms. He’s ideal as far as a pass rusher.”
Rivera said despite Smith’s absence, there’s plenty of tape on the linebacker from last season and the first three games of this year, when he had 4.5 sacks.
This isn’t the first time the Panthers will face a player who’s been absent for weeks. Arizona linebacker Daryl Washington was suspended the first four weeks of the season, and in his debut against the Panthers he had nine tackles and two sacks in a 22-6 Cardinals victory.
“Being a little later in the season, having game film from him earlier in the season, I think helps,” said tight end Ben Hartsock, who could occasionally block Smith out of San Francisco’s 3-4 defense. “Playing Arizona earlier, you had less film to go from on that season. When you’ve got real game footage from that season to see how they’re playing, I think that helps.
“Time off in general is a funny thing – off bye weeks or off suspension or whatever. You try to figure out if there’s a pattern of success or not success, and I don’t know that you can really find one.”
Right tackle Byron Bell said he and left tackle Jordan Gross have watched plenty of film on Smith this week and are prepared for him. And though he gave credit to San Francisco’s defensive front-seven, he was quick to point out the Panthers are ready.
“I think one of the better defensive lines is the one we practice against each and every week,” Bell said. “Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson is not an easy match up. I think we got two of the top (defensive) ends in the league already but we’ve played against some good quality defensive ends. I think we should be fine.”
Kuechly passed on Stanford: When it came time for Luke Kuechly to make his college decision, he spent a lot of time with then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh.
Kuechly ultimately chose Boston College, but he still remembers the in-home visit he had with the now-49ers head coach.
“He’s intense,” Kuechly said. “That’s one thing. He’s a good guy, he’s passionate about football and he’s intense. I was around him quite a bit. I took a couple of visits out to Stanford, he was at my house. He was an intense guy.”
Harbaugh told San Francisco reporters this week that he left Kuechly’s home thinking he was going “to be a Stanford man.” He knows the Panthers middle linebacker will be an obstacle for the 49ers offense.
“You could see that he’s a great player and somebody that has got to be blocked or he’ll make every tackle,” Harbaugh said, according to ESPN.com. “Big challenge for us this week.”
Injury update: Linebacker Chase Blackburn missed his second day of practice Thursday with a foot injury, and it’s unclear if he’ll play against the 49ers on Sunday. ... Cornerback James Dockery said he tore his left labrum during the Atlanta game, but he plans to hold off on surgery until after the season. “I want to have a chance to come back with the guys and make this push for the playoffs,” said Dockery, who’s out 2-4 weeks. “That’s important to me, so if I can come back and help out the team that’s what I’m going to do.”
Staff writer Joseph Person contributed.
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