And the rookie, a 20-year-old Marshawn Lynch, took the best hits Smith could muster that Sunday seven seasons ago. And Lynch laughed. Boldly.
“Hey, I like you,” Lynch, then the running back of the Buffalo Bills, told the defensive end Smith. “I like you a lot.”
Such caring jests will cease as Smith and the entire 49ers defense are tasked with stopping one of the most bruising rushers on one of the most physical teams in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game against the Seattle Seahawks. And if the 49ers hope to earn their second Super Bowl appearance in as many years, they must halt Lynch on his home field.
“Everybody’s got their own technique in tackling,” linebacker Dan Skuta said. “I’m just gonna try and hit him as hard as I can.”
The Seahawks running back and Oakland native Lynch gashed the New Orleans Saints for 140 rushing yards and two touchdowns in a 23-15 win in last weekend’s divisional playoff game. In his last two home starts against the 49ers — undisputedly Seattle’s most intense NFC West rival — Lynch has been lethal.
“You gotta be able to tackle him, it’s gotta take more than one guy,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “We’ve gotta be great up front, we can’t let him get into the secondary unscathed.”
“Outstanding,” added coach Jim Harbaugh. “That’s the kind of competitive struggle that we all anticipate and that’s what makes it just so much darn fun.”
But Harbaugh and Co. had little fun in their last two trips up north.
Lynch torched the San Francisco defense earlier this regular season rushing for 98 yards and two touchdown, while adding a receiving touchdown. The season before that, Lynch rumbled his way to 111 rushing yards and two scores, one of which was receiving.
“One of the best running backs in the NFL,” 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said. “We understand that they love to run the ball. Marshawn’s a big part of that. But also, Russell Wilson, he’s able to scramble and able to throw the ball as well. So, we just have to play a complete game.”
But a complete game would mean eliminating turnovers. Because every time San Francisco’s offense surrenders the ball — and that occurred five times when they last visited CenturyLink Field — that means another chance for Lynch, and likewise another try for that vaunted Seattle crowd to drown the hopes of the visiting faithful.
But that would give Lynch another excuse to laugh, too.
“He’s always been that type of guy,” Willis said. “You smile when you’re having fun. You smile when you know the next man is in trouble. And maybe that’s what he has in his mind when he’s running the ball. But I kind of have that a little bit about me, when I’m tackling, when I’m out there playing. I like to smile a little bit, too.”