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Niners' 'Cowboy' set tone in special season

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Dan Arkush
Executive editor

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Posted Jan. 20, 2012 @ 4:11 a.m. ET
By Dan Arkush

Although an unyielding "team" concept was the key factor Jim Harbaugh and the Niners' higher-ups emphasized this season, sources on the scene agree that there was one individual player who stood out from beginning to end.

Eleven-year veteran DT Justin Smith.

Over and over again, Smith came up huge when it counted most:

  • In Week Four, the Niners' 24-23 road victory over the Eagles wasn't cemented until Smith galloped 15 yards downfield to force a fumble by Eagles WR Jeremy Maclin.
  • In Week 10, the Niners' 27-20 home victory over the Giants wasn't locked up until Smith leaped as high as he could to bat down a desperation pass by Eli Manning.
  • And then there was his dominating effort late in the Niners' classic 36-32 divisional playoff victory over the Saints, when he made Pro Bowl OT Jermon Bushrod look like a hopeless bush-leaguer — a performance Harbaugh said deserved an "11 out of 10."

But just as importantly, Smith began setting the tone for the team when the man nicknamed "Cowboy" took the bull by the horns and led the way in players-only workouts during the lockout.

"He is such a leader off the field," said one daily team observer. "He's just a workout fiend. He constantly pushed the other players to keep up with him, and most of them couldn't.

"It really is a big reason for this team's success."

As is Smith's tremendous stamina, which has established him as one of the league's more durable players.

"At the end of games he's always at his best," the observer said. "In the first half against the Saints, he actually wasn't real good. But in the fourth quarter, he was just dominant!"

Another example of Smith's value is his special rapport with Niners first-round draft pick Aldon Smith — both on and off the field.

More than a few of Aldon Smith's 14 sacks came on stunts when Justin Smith did the dirty work occupying blockers while the rookie took advantage of his great ability to make quick cuts in short spaces to get to the passer.

"Together, they were unstoppable much of the time, and Justin's selflessness was a big reason why," the observer said.

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