SANTA CLARA -- Four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Justin Smith's status for the playoffs is uncertain after missing the past six quarters with a partially torn triceps tendon.
Even without Smith, the 49ers have five defensive players who earned Pro Bowl recognition. The Chicago Bears had four defenders voted to play in the all-star game. No other NFC team had more than one defensive player chosen.
Linebacker Patrick Willis, who has earned Pro Bowl recognition in all six of his NFL seasons, does not understate Smith's importance to the 49ers' defense. But he said the remaining players are capable of compensating for Smith's absence.
"You can't really put into words what he means to this defense," Willis said Thursday. "Justin is one of our team captains, but more than just a captain, he's a man who goes out there and leads by example.
"Each person has to just take it another notch. Ricky Jean (Francois) is playing for Justin. He has to come in and play at a high level, which I know he will. At the end 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."
Smith sustained a partial tear of the triceps tendon Dec. 16 early in the third quarter against the New England Patriots when a bone spur attached to a piece of the tendon became detached in his left elbow.
He did not play Sunday night against the Seattle Seahawks, but remains a possibility to play again this season. He has not undergone surgery, but will probably have a procedure in the offseason to remove the bone spur. His availability is based on regaining the strength in his left arm.
At the beginning of Thursday's practice, Smith remained in the 49ers' weight room.
"He told me he's getting better each and every day," 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "That's really all I know. He said it's getting better."
Said Willis, "Hopefully, we're able to get him back in the playoffs, but also want to make sure he takes care of himself. We most certainly miss him."
In the six quarters since Smith's injury, the 49ers' defense has surrendered 66 points. The Seahawks scored one touchdown on special teams in their 42-13 victory over the 49ers.
Fangio claimed that the 49ers' struggles on defense against Seattle had less to do with Smith than team-wide breakdowns.
"He's a great player, one of the best defensive players in the NFL," Fangio said. "Any time you lose one of those guys, it does have an adverse affect on you. But I don't think the problems we had in the last game were because of Justin not being there. They just out-played us, and out-coached us in that game."
Said Willis, "You can't fill his shoes. Nobody can do that. But I know we can certainly get it done."