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Panthers preparing as if Aldon Smith will play

Game of the Week Panthers 49ers Football
Marcio Jose Sanchez - AP
Aldon Smith could play Sunday when the Carolina Panthers face the San Francisco 49ers.

Though the 49ers have yet to rule linebacker Aldon Smith as active for Sunday’s game against Carolina, the Panthers are preparing as if Smith, one of the league’s best pass rushers will play.

Smith, a Pro Bowl linebacker who had 30.5 sacks in his first 27 games in the NFL, returned to San Francisco last week after spending nearly a month in a voluntary rehab facility following an arrest for suspicion of a DUI.

He’s still on the team’s non-football injury list, but he could return this week after a five-game absence.

“The biggest thing more than anything else is his game conditioning,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “The challenge is being able to block him. He’s so quick, he’s got a great first step, he gets vertical very quickly, he’s got long arms. He’s ideal as far as a pass rusher.”

Rivera said despite Smith’s absence, there’s plenty of tape on the linebacker from last season and the first three games of this year, when he had 4.5 sacks.

This isn’t the first time the Panthers will face a player who’s been absent for weeks. Arizona linebacker Daryl Washington was suspended the first four weeks of the season, and in his debut against the Panthers he had nine tackles and two sacks in a 22-6 Cardinals victory.

“Being a little later in the season, having game film from him earlier in the season, I think helps,” said tight end Ben Hartsock, who could occasionally block Smith out of San Francisco’s 3-4 defense. “Playing Arizona earlier, you had less film to go from on that season. When you’ve got real game footage from that season to see how they’re playing, I think that helps.

“Time off in general is a funny thing – off bye weeks or off suspension or whatever. You try to figure out if there’s a pattern of success or not success, and I don’t know that you can really find one.”

Right tackle Byron Bell said he and left tackle Jordan Gross have watched plenty of film on Smith this week and are prepared for him. And though he gave credit to San Francisco’s defensive front-seven, he was quick to point out the Panthers are ready.

“I think one of the better defensive lines is the one we practice against each and every week,” Bell said. “Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson is not an easy match up. I think we got two of the top (defensive) ends in the league already but we’ve played against some good quality defensive ends. I think we should be fine.”

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