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Jim Harbaugh hazy on Justin Smith's playing status

The San Francisco 49ers aren't the same team on defense without Justin Smith. The anchoring defensive end was sorely missed during Sunday night's 42-13 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, and it isn't clear when he'll return from the elbow injury he suffered in Week 15.

"I don't know for sure," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh told The Sacramento Bee when asked if Smith would be back in time for the playoffs.

It's a central concern for the 49ers after what we saw against Seattle. The Seahawks directed their ground game right at Smith's replacement, Ricky Jean Francois, taking out Aldon Smith in the process.

When they're on the field together, Justin Smith regularly consumes blockers to free up Aldon Smith, who has 19.5 sacks on the season but was held to zero against the Seahawks. In a sense, Aldon gets the glory while Justin does the grunt work. Not on Sunday night. The Seahawks didn't try to dance around San Francisco's proven pass rush -- they ran right into it. One reason 49ers teammate Carlos Rogers called Justin Smith "one of the MVPs" of the defense.

"He demands a double team, he'll get after the quarterback," Rogers said. "When (opponents) scout our defense and talk about our D-line, they're going to scout Justin. He makes it easier for our linebackers. He makes it easier for Aldon (Smith) to get sacks. He's a big part of our defense. But the thing about it is the next guy's going to step up. We can't use Justin being out as an excuse."

Losing Justin Smith for any amount of time changes how the 49ers play defense and alters what offenses can do against them. His return can't come soon enough after what we saw against the Seahawks.

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @MarcSesslerNFL.

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