Harbaugh said his throwing sessions with Smith are still what he talks about most from his Panthers tenure, noting: "I would say, 'There's a guy there in Carolina named Steve Smith who's really good.' Then he became a great, Hall of Fame-type player."
Smith has evolved into the Panthers' all-time leading receiver. He has a team-high 36 catches for 387 yards and three touchdowns this season.
"The intensity of [Sunday's game] will be good for some of our young players," Smith told Peter King in Friday's The MMQB at mmqb.si.com. "It'll wake some of them up. I think it'll be a chippy game, which is in my element. Good old-fashioned football."
Smith and Anquan Boldin, the 49ers' leading receiver, are two of the NFL's most physical wideouts, but their on-field demeanors differ.
"Steve will have a history with people that he doesn't care for … and you might get a fight out of him," 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers said. "Anquan just has a physical style of play. … If there's one that almost gets into a fight, that's Steve Smith, but he backs it up all the time."
Rogers said he and Smith got along well in their previous meeting, when Rogers was with Washington in 2009. If he isn't covering Smith or former 49ers teammate Ted Ginn Jr. on the outside, Rogers will shift to the slot and match up against Brandon LaFell.
Quarterbacks are completing only 50 percent of their passes and producing a 67.7 passer rating when targeting Rogers. Those marks, respectively, rank him 13th and 21st among the league's cornerbacks.
If Rogers weren't playing so solidly, the 49ers could summon a potential successor in Eric Wright, who was activated last week and might make his season debut Sunday. Wright is preparing to play but didn't say if that's the plan, nor did Harbaugh.
Also Sunday for the Niners
T.O.'s return • A decade after last playing at Candlestick Park, Terrell Owens will return Sunday as the 49ers' honorary game captain. Owens, the 49ers' second-most prolific receiver behind Jerry Rice, will be on hand to commemorate his January 1999 playoff heroics as part of the team's "Farewell Candlestick" campaign. In what's called "The Catch II" in 49ers lore, Owens snagged a 25-yard touchdown pass from Steve Young to defeat the Green Bay Packers 30-27 in a Jan. 3, 1999, NFC wild-card playoff game.
Smith looking 'solid' • Linebacker Aldon Smith had a "solid, very good week" in his return after a five-game hiatus while in substance-abuse treatment. Harbaugh was not aware of any plans to limit Smith's snaps Sunday.