SANTA CLARA -- Aldon Smith spoke with confidence Thursday about what awaits him and the 49ers in their playoff push.

Chatter has subsided about his personal issues. Instead, he's again drawing attention for his on-field exploits.

"I'm back in the swing of things," Smith said in an exclusive interview at his locker.

The 49ers' most dominant pass rusher is five games into his comeback, having missed the preceding five while in voluntary treatment after an alleged drunken-driving accident.

Since returning, his only two sacks came in a Nov. 25 win at Washington. But he provided early pressure last Sunday to help spark the 49ers' 19-17 win over the Seattle Seahawks.

"He played very well against Washington, he played very well last week, and I expect him to play really well down the stretch here," defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said.

The 49ers (9-4) can wrap up a playoff berth as early as Sunday, when they visit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-9). Smith likes how things are shaping up in their quest for a Super Bowl return.

"We're at our strongest point, honestly, with everybody back teamwise," Smith said.

The same could be said of Smith, individually.

He called his personal life "good," without going into further detail. In recent social-media posts, he's shown off pictures of his 1-year-old son and the joys of fatherhood, such as the maddening task of assembling a crib on his day off.


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Wearing a tightly cropped hairstyle instead of the curls he had in the early season, Smith has displayed a noticeably different persona around the 49ers facility, according to several people. He has been more personable, more caring, more outgoing and more respectful, they said, doing things such as clearing his own plates in the lunchroom.

Smith is still facing legal issues aside from the arrest on suspicion of DUI. He pleaded not guilty last month to three felony weapons charges, and he's a defendant in two civil cases stemming from gunfire at his 2012 house party.

On the field, Smith finds himself in a different spotlight from the past two Decembers.

As a rookie in 2011, the first-round draft pick from Missouri closed in on Charles Haley's franchise record for most sacks as a rookie. Smith's 14 sacks trumped Haley by two.

Last season, he surpassed Fred Dean for most sacks in a season by a 49ers pass rusher, totaling 19½, also trumping Dean by two.

This season's NFL sack title is no longer a realistic goal, but that isn't a concern to Smith.

"I still want to make plays and get better," he said.

After opening the season with 4½ sacks in three games, Smith's world took a stunning twist as he entered an inpatient, rehabilitation facility.

Now back in form, his quarterback-harassing presence will do the 49ers good as they draw closer to a third consecutive postseason berth.

True, they won all five games while he was away, but they didn't beat any teams ahead of them in the playoff race. Instead, they topped the St. Louis Rams, Houston Texans, Arizona Cardinals, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars.

Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier admirably platooned in Smith's place during his absence. Two games ago, Smith returned to the starting lineup, and he played 44 of 53 snaps in Sunday's win over the Seahawks.

His ultimate wingman remains Justin Smith, whose leadership and work ethic are something "we all try to mimic," Aldon Smith said.

Recently, "The Smith Brothers" again are showing signs of being a dominant duo, though they're not running as many stunts and twists as in their 2011-12 heyday.

"We do it when we can. Teams have done their share of film study to make sure they don't get beat by it," Aldon Smith said. "They'll give us a variety of looks, and we don't do (those moves) as much, either."

But just so opponents know: Aldon Smith looks as capable as ever of getting to the quarterback. The Buccaneers' Mike Glennon will have to deal with that next.

SUNDAY'S GAME
49ers (9-4) at Tampa Bay (4-9), 10 a.m. FOX

INSIDE
Boldin says he's ready for hard-hitting Goldson. PAGE 4

JEFF GROSS/GETTY IMAGES
Aldon Smith has been back for five games since his stay in a rehabilitation facility.