This is the first part in a series that spotlights five 49ers-Falcons matchups to watch Sunday, noon, at the Georgia Dome in the NFC Championship Game.
49ers DT Justin Smith vs. Falcons LG Justin Blalock
Tale of the tape
Smith (94): 6-foot-4, 285 pounds, 12th season, Missouri
Blalock (63): 6-foot-4, 326 pounds, sixth season, Texas
When 49ers defensive tackle Justin Smith returned to the lineup Saturday night, he looked pretty similar to the old Justin Smith.
And that's about all the 49ers could hope to see from him after he missed 2 1/2 games with a partially torn left triceps tendon that will likely require extensive offseason surgery.
Smith, playing with a brace on his elbow, sat out only three plays in the game before resting for the final two snaps of the game with the 49ers well in command of a 45-31 victory over the Green Bay Packers. And Smith is expected to be just fine to face the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, too.
"(He) came out of the game as clean as possible," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said of Smith, generally regarded the 49ers' most important defensive player.
Smith did a good job of holding double-team blocks and getting involved in the run game. Smith tied for third on the 49ers with five tackles. Although the 49ers did not fully test Smith in practices last week -- he took part in limited work -- Harbaugh said he figured Smith would be able to perform near his usual level.
"It looked good in practice and the feedback that we were getting from him was positive," Harbaugh said.
Now that there's no question that Smith should be able to function over the course of an entire game, the 49ers can expect him to be a significant factor in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday as the 49ers made a bid for their first Super Bowl appearance since the 1994 season.
Smith will be matched on a down-in, down-out basis against Falcons left guard Justin Blalock, a six-year veteran who has started 80 consecutive games.
Blalock had a good season in pass protection, as he yielded just one sack. But he was not as consistently strong as a run-blocker. After rushing for more than 1,300 yards last season, running back Michael Turner was held to just 800 yards rushing with career-low average of 3.6 yards.
But Blalock had a strong game Sunday in the Falcons' 30-28 playoff over the Seattle Seahawks. Turner had 98 yards on 14 carries, and Jacquizz Rodgers added 64 yards on 10 attempts.
The 49ers hope to make the Falcons one dimensional by stuffing the run game early in Sunday's game. And they'll be counting on Smith to be his usual Pro Bowl self.