Willis: on Smith's absence 'We were able to develop some depth'
Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier filled in admirably for Aldon Smith over the five games he missed, all 49ers wins. (AP)
SANTA CLARA -- Aldon Smith has shorter hair and might be a few pounds heavier, but he proved to his teammates during practices Monday and Tuesday that he is ready to play football on Sunday, when the 49ers return after the bye week.
Wide receiver Mario Manningham, cornerback Eric Wright and second-round draft pick Tank Carradine, a defensive lineman, have also been cleared to make their season debuts.
And wide receiver Michael Crabtree returned to practice on Tuesday, just 5 ½ months after surgery to repair a torn right Achilles tendon. After practice, Crabtree said he felt good and things went well during his return to the field.
The 49ers’ roster is as strong as it has been this season, and it will get even deeper upon Crabtree’s official return.
“We don’t have Crabtree back, yet,” 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks said. “He’s back on the field practicing, but he’s not going to be in the game (Sunday against the Carolina Panthers).
[RELATED: Crabtree cleared to practice]
“But Mario is back, hopefully. I’m just excited for him. I’m excited for the team. I’m excited for what we’re capable of doing. The ultimate goal is to win the Super Bowl, and that’s what we’re striving for.”
The 49ers won all five games while Aldon Smith voluntarily entered into a treatment facility for substance abuse. Dan Skuta played on base downs and Corey Lemonier handled pass-rush situations, as the 49ers compensated for the loss of their 2012 team MVP.
“Aldon has been a guy, since he’s came in, who has been productive for our defense, a playmaker for our defense,” 49ers All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis said. “And to get him back, it’s a good thing.
“With his absence we were able to develop some depth with some other guys. I think it’s really going to be strong point for us in building.”
Despite playing more than half of the season without Smith, who set a franchise record with 19.5 sacks last season, the 49ers own one of the top defenses in the NFL. The 49ers rank fourth in the league in scoring defense (18.1 points per game), sixth in total yards allowed per game (325.1) and eighth in passing yards allowed (220.5).
“Everybody thought we couldn’t be one of the premier defenses in the NFL with Aldon being out, because he’s that good of an athlete,” Brooks said. “But we’ve done a very good job and just adding the pieces back to the puzzle is going to make everything much better.”
At the point that Smith left the 49ers, the team was 1-2 after the first back-to-back losses under Jim Harbaugh as head coach. The 49ers have since gained in the NFC West standings on the Seattle Seahawks. The 49ers have won five consecutive games by more than 10 points -- the organization's first such streak since 1995.
“With us losing against Indianapolis and Seattle -- us being blown out by Seattle -- guys started think that we weren’t the premier team in the NFL,” Brooks said of outside perception. “And that’s what it’s all about, man, going out every Sunday and proving yourself.”
And that’s exactly what defensive lineman Justin Smith said the 49ers much continue to do. After all, the injection of talented players returning off reserve lists does not guarantee the 49ers will be a better team in the second half of the season, he said.
“The way I always take things is one week at a time. It’s so cliché, but it’s true,” Justin Smith. “You can’t pencil in a win. You can’t say, ‘This will be a close game.’ Every game you have to watch out and be prepared to play.
“Just watching football this last weekend, Seattle vs. Tampa. We know you've got to come to work every day and be prepared. We have to be ready to play Carolina. And we’re not thinking a whole lot past that.”