SAN FRANCISCO -- Linebacker Aldon Smith returned to action Sunday for the first time in seven weeks, but it's going to take a while longer before he makes his presence felt again.
He played only 11 of 66 snaps Sunday as part of the team's nickel package.
Coach Jim Harbaugh and Smith both said that was the plan going into the game. Just the same, Smith said he's in good enough shape to play every down.
"I'm a competitor, I want to be on the field," said Smith, who admitted he wasn't satisfied with a limited role. "But whatever works. The season's long, so we'll see how it goes."
Smith was discharged from a rehab facility in late October after spending five weeks or so undergoing treatment for substance abuse.
His return to the field was against the Carolina Panthers in front of adoring fans at Candlestick Park.
"It was good," Smith said of his first game action since the 49ers lost to the Indianapolis Colts on Sept. 22, when he played all 72 of the team's defensive snaps. "Being back on the field was good."
The 49ers players formally welcomed back Smith last Monday. Accepting him back into a game setting represented the next step.
That occurred early in the second quarter, when Smith trotted onto the field for a third-down play. Fans roared their approval.
Smith responded by getting decent pressure on Panthers quarterback Cam Newton with a surge up the middle. Smith spent the rest of the game trying in vain to find a way to make a measurable impact.
He finished without making any tackles. On a key third-and-8 play late in the game, Smith remained on the sideline in yet another sign that it's going to take some time before things return to the way they were before his extended absence.
"It's special to see a dominant player like that back," cornerback Tarell Brown said. "We welcomed him back. Having that presence out there, with 99 on the field, is always something special. He's a hell of a player and a hell of a person."
Despite his limited role Sunday, Smith was just thrilled to be back in any capacity, given where he was in September.
Two days before the Colts game, Smith crashed his pickup truck into a tree and was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence. The day after the Colts game, Smith entered an out-of-state rehab facility.
At this time last season, Smith was in the midst of a memorable season, when he recorded a team-record 19½ sacks while also threatening the NFL's single-season record.
He has only 4½ sacks this season but still has plenty of time to make an impact. Defensive lineman Justin Smith said he and his teammates are energized by Aldon Smith's return and confident he'll regain his form in short order.
"Anytime you get one of your best players and team leaders back out there, it's good," Justin Smith said. "I know what he can do. We're just excited to have him back."
Harbaugh, of course, has myriad things to keep tabs on during games. Hence, he said, he won't have an accurate gauge on how well Aldon Smith played until he watches video of the game.
"My initial feeling, he did fine," Harbaugh said.
Smith, too, is keeping things in perspective.
"It's definitely something that I wish would have worked out differently," he said in reference to the 49ers losing. "Take it as baby steps."