Alex Smith saw his first career start this week against one of the leagues best defenses. With no solid offensive line in front of him, Smith did benefit from a decent run game. Of course he was also punished when running backs outright did not see the man they were supposed to block until it was too late. Smith was hit, hurried, and sacked. Each time though, he got back up and commanded the 49ers offense with an intense calmness. The type of attitude that is reminiscent of quarterbacks who actually have success in this league. Sure, Smith threw four interceptions, two of which were worse than the others, and sure, Smith did not score a touchdown, and he only lead the team to the redzone once, BUT what he did do, is look like a man that can actually lead this team in the future. He also managed to keep the offense on the field significantly longer than at any point this season.
There is no doubt in my mind that Alex Smith will benefit from playing as opposed to sitting behind Tim Rattay. There is also no doubt in my mind that playing against the tough Colts defense leading into a bye week will work to his advantage. But I do not expect him to transform into Montana over night. Despite an offense that was more vanilla than anything I have seen in a regular season, including the offenses played by Steve Stenstrom under Steve Mariucci, Smith still looked a beat or two too slow on the field. Too slow in decision making, too slow in getting rid of the ball, too slow in deciding when to run, when to leave the pocket, and when to deliver the ball. The game of course is moving at a pace much faster than Smith is used too, and that will take time to adjust too – especially if the 49ers cannot get an offensive line in front of him that can actually give him three to five seconds to throw the ball. I thus do not expect a transformation overnight, but I do expect Smith will progress.
It is very evident he has the tools. His arm has a rocket behind it, not an arm like McNaab’s, but certainly stronger than anything we have seen in San Francisco for quite some time. He has the size and frame to stand in the pocket against pressure, and to take a hit. When Smith does make the right throw, at the right time, the ball is also put in the right spot for the receivers to catch it in stride and make a play on it. These tools will be instrumental as Smith begins getting comfortable with the pace of a NFL game. And as Smith learns to use his athletic ability to his advantage in the NFL, another hurdle will be crossed.
The coaching staff needs to help Smith out though. They need to recognize that Smith needs a simple offense, but not an offense so simple that defenses can predict what will come next (as was seen against the Colts). The coaching staff has to script plays that work to Smith’s advantage, but not plays that only result in a positive gain of one or two yards on third and ten. The coaching staff needs to consider that Smith’s success is directly related to the success of the blocking in front of him. Anthony Clement is not an answer, sitting Fred Beasley at this point is laughable.
The most positive aspect of the game against the Colts was that the 49ers were able to gain first downs, and give their defense a little more rest than normal. In fact through the first half, the defense was even able to keep the offense in the game, despite the injuries to the secondary. I was very surprised by this, and to be honest I cannot fathom why Payton Manning was not throwing deep on every play. I was relieved that Manning and Marvin Harrison did not trump the Steve Young to Jerry Rice touchdown record at the ‘Stick. That just should not happen in our house.
Although Bryant Young did not have a sack this game, he continues to show how good of player he is. Constant penetration and really solid against the run. Young really is the ultimate 49er. Andre Carter had in my opinion one of his best games as a 49er. He was clearly contributing to the team efforts. He does not in my opinion have the speed needed in coverage though, and that is where Winborn will continually be missed. Julian Peterson played injured, and in so doing was completely silent.
Derrick Smith is having his best season as a 49er. Smith is always around the ball, he makes tackles all over the field and never gives up. The same can be said for Tony Parrish. Between these two, and Bryant Young and Julian Peterson it is clear who the leaders of this defense are.
The defensive backfield played better than I expected. Sure they had their share of mistakes, and the Colts essentially had their way with them, but for the most part they did not give up the big play. I really thought this game would be bombs away, and for some reason it just was not. Shawntae Spencer is not a shutdown corner, at least not yet. He still can be easily fooled in staying with receivers.
Aside from Bryant Young the rest of the defensive line was very quiet this week. They were also disappointing against the run, unable to bring down runners on first, second and sometimes even third contact. Given the ailments in the defensive secondary, and now at linebacker too, this has to change.
Joe Nedney continues to be a smart pick up at kicker. Any Lee is a solid punter. Each week these guys contributions go unnoticed. Nedney this week converted one of two onside kicks. The second was almost converted to Cody Pickett too. Lee can boom kicks, and control their placing. He had a ball downed inside the five this week. Otis Amy and Maurice Hicks are decent as returners, but need to get better at just running the ball, and drop their attempts to be ‘fancy’.
I expected the 49ers would lose this game. I expected it to be a worse outing than it was. I have to commend the coaching staff at putting together a roster that was in shambles and creating something that resembled a football team out there. The offensive play calling needs to get better. It needs to be more in-tune with Smith’s strengths. But in all, I am not nearly as disappointed losing this game, even by such a large margin, as I have been in losing games with Rattay. The 49ers looked like a football team on the field this Sunday for probably the second time this season. Heading into the bye week it should be interesting to see what the 49ers can put together to match up against the Redskins.