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Passing it on


Robert Geathers

NEW ORLEANS — Justin Smith is a big man at the Super Bowl.

He meets the daily media crush sitting on a riser instead of around a table like most of his teammates, emblematic of how his presence in the middle of the San Francisco defensive line sets the tone for one of the NFL's most effective and punishing defenses.

"My typical appearance fee," said Smith, who can't count one endorsement in the middle of American sport's corporate orgy. "Nothing."

So if he's one of San Francisco's defining players in Sunday's NFL title game against the Ravens, he still has played more games for the Bengals (111) than San Francisco (78) and is still very much the 21-year-old kid that arrived unvarnished and uncomplicated at Paul Brown Stadium 12 years ago. While he has become a Pro Bowler at two completely different positions on the other side of the country and the Bengals have become one of the top defensive lines in the NFL with a vastly different brand of play, there is still some Bengal in Smith and some Smith in the Bengals.

All you have to do is just go into the PBS defensive line room from time to time and listen to left end Robert Geathers or tackle Domata Peko tell a "Justin Story."

"There are a lot of them. But a lot of them you can't tell because they're not PG-13," Bengals defensive line coach Jay Hayes said. "This is Rob's room and Peko's room and they tell the stories sometimes. He'd go up to a guy if he had missed a couple of days of practice and say, 'You know, this crap ain't for everybody,' and just walk away. That was J. Smith. I can count on my hands the number of practices he missed. Maybe six. And he was mad every time."

Smith is telling stories, too, of those days.

"One of the great all-time quotes," Smith said to a familiar face Wednesday. He was able to resurrect one of his own quotes from years ago in the Bengals locker room that revolved around his ability to use alphabet soup better than a reporter wrote his stories.

"Hey," he said after the crush subsided Wednesday. "Are John Thornton and those guys still around there? Is he still in the media."

He smiled when he heard that Thornton, the ex-tackle whom along with Smith and Bryan Robinson schooled Geathers and Peko, is indeed still around Cincinnati.

"We didn't win a ton of games there, but I learned a lot about football from Dick LeBeau to Marvin Lewis and Jay Hayes and those types of guys that I learned from," Smith said. "It was definitely part of my growing process."

And that makes it part of the Bengals growing process. Smith is seeing how far they've come because the Niners have been watching the Ravens cutups of their two games against the Bengals.

"It's kind of fun. Robert and Peko are the veteran guys in that locker room now," Smith said. "You look at Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap and the other guys they have, they have an impressive defense.

"I think everybody learns something from everybody (that comes) before them a little bit. There's no invention of the wheel on that one. It's a good group. You know that. They've got the right mix of players in there. Geno is really good. He's got a bright future."

Smith missed his first game last month with torn triceps, the first game he's missed since the opener of his rookie year because of his contract dispute. This crap ain't for everybody. He's come back to play with an injury that puts many on injured reserve. The game on the sidelines galled him.

"I was hurt ... I wasn't going out there," he said. "You have to handle it when you have to handle it."

Which is pretty much how Peko and Geathers go at it. In the last two seasons, the Bengals front four has missed just two total starts. They have enough in common that Smith says he still keeps in touch with guys he played with in Cincinnati from 2001-07. His closest ex-mate is probably Geathers, his bookend for four seasons at left end while Smith played right. It is Geathers that comes up with Justin Sayings on demand.

"Rob is still chugging along; I wouldn't expect anything different from Rob," Smith said. "He's a tough guy. I like Rob. He's a good dude."

Geathers was the kind of young player that absorbed everything from the vets, Thornton recalled, but he didn't take everything.

"Justin's old school. He did things a little bit differently from the way Marvin did things when he came in," Thornton said. "He wasn't into a lot of film study and he wasn't into all the stunting and stuff. He just wanted to line up and go. But when it came time to practice and play, he was always there giving 100 percent. You look at Rob, who's not as athletic as Justin, but they're the same type of effort, reliable players."

But things are so just so much different now, Thornton says. When Smith was a 270-pound 4-3 end in Cincinnati, he relied on his speed to outrun left tackles. Now he says the 295-pound Smith can use his strength. The one-time speed rusher is now mentioned as one of the best bull rushers in the NFL while the Bengals front is wreaking havoc.

"Their defensive line is so much different now than when we played," Thornton said. "Much more physical and athletic and they get to the quarterback more than we could ever dream."

The Bengals thought enough of Smith to make him their franchise player in his last season, but there was a nagging sense they wanted more than seven sacks per season from the fourth pick in the draft. Still, he was a rare bird. Before every season you could write in seven sacks, 90 tackles and 98 percent of the snaps.

Smith isn't sure what spurred his transition. When he arrived in Frisco in 2008, the Niners made him a 3-4 outside backer and that didn't seem to work. Now he moves back and forth at end and tackle consuming so many blockers that linebackers Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith have become household names.

He admits his simplicity may have had something to do with the switch.

"I'm pretty much a straight-ahead guy," Smith said. "I think that's why they moved me inside. I gained some weight. The abs are gone."

Hayes can remember Smith saying facetiously, "I'm just a white try-hard guy. I play hard. I don't have any talent."

Old Justin, they'll tell you. He played that card Wednesday, too.

"It's just a natural progression. The slower you get, they keep moving you in. If I'm ever playing nose tackle, it's definitely the end," he said.

Smith was asked about the wristbands the defensive players were awarded last week because of their turnover rate and he couldn't recall.

"I must have not got a turnover," he said.

No, he was told, everybody got them.

"It must be in my bag somewhere," he said with a shrug.

But he admitted he would find a place for a Super Bowl ring.

"I don't wear jewelry," he said. "But I'd wear it around some."

He thought about it a little more.

"But I won't wear it around the airport or anything like that," he said.

Same old Justin.

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