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Life With Alex May Never Be The Same - By Bryan Hersh Sept 28 2007

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Every 49ers fan hoped to beat the Steelers this past weekend, but most also realized that starting 3-0 was a long shot. Despite losing, the team may have come away with the next best thing – the knowledge that they can at least compete with the top tier of NFL teams. Though the score may have been lopsided the game was actually much closer, and it was not until a few bad calls piled up, and too many mistakes added up that the Steelers actually began to dominate the game. This is very encouraging news given that the Steelers are among the best teams in the league.

It is easy to say “what if” or to lay blame on the refs, but more important to look past these, accept the loss, and learn from the game as the 49ers prepare for a vital match up against the NFC West division rival Seahawks. No, the 49ers did not find their offense but they did find part of their offense. This was a crucial component to the team becoming formidable contenders this season. Quarterback Alex Smith looked sharp and on target with the exception of less than a handful of throws and the play calling from the sidelines was vastly improved. Despite dropped passes, an super ordinary run game, and a too little too late feeling on Smith’s lone touchdown pass of the season – this was a huge improvement on what has been seen in the first two games of the season. Further still, the accomplishment of connecting on only the second passing touchdown against a very difficult Steelers defense is part of the silver lining.

This loss was constructive and next to a win that is the best thing the 49ers could have hoped for. The team can now be re-assured that Alex Smith has the skills to continue to build around. Given adequate protection he made all the throws. Without the protection he extended the plays, often making the first man miss. If this could be subsidized with improved offensive line play, a running game, or receivers catching the ball Smith’s game would have been far superior. Those that doubted he could take the next steps now must give pause and realize that Smith can be a real winner, but must also receive the support to do so. Further still, coaches can now push Smith to take one step further in throwing to a spot on the field and trusting his receivers to be there, rather than throwing directly at a receiver. That step will begin to set Smith apart.

The 49ers now have a mandate to improve their offense by:
- Finding Smith more protection
- Providing as creative a run game as they did display in the passing game. This can be done with counters, delays, and miss direction runs.
- Re-aligning Smith’s reads on receivers to go to the ones that hold onto the ball first

The constructiveness of the game was not relegated to the offensive side of the ball either. The loss of Manny Lawson was very evident despite some solid play by Hannibal Navies who forced and recovered a fumble and generated quarterback pressure. The defense looked a step slower, and did not disguise its attack or bring as much pressure as it had earlier in the season. Further the defense struggled when covering tight ends and receivers. Red Zone defense must improve as well. Overall though, sloppy tackling particularly in the run game and when wrapping up the quarterback in the backfield highlighted the deficiencies of the 49ers defense. Improving the tackling has to be the defensive priority moving forward. There were too many opportunities where the 49ers had opportunities for big plays, but failed to finish. Perhaps this syndrome is something the team caught from the Bengals, but no matter what the cause, the 49ers will never take the next step if they fail to make tackles on defense.

The coaching staff has been praised for their work over the past two years and rightfully so. However, with the talent on the roster this year, it is fair to expect more. Sloppy tackling, mistakes and penalties at key points of the game, poor protection and a lack of creativity in the run game are no longer acceptable faults for this team. Coach Mike Nolan must find a way to improve the execution on the field at those key moments, and must bring the discipline he is known for in practice and off the field onto the field on Sundays.

To summarize, the 49ers have room to improve on both sides of the ball – and even on special teams, and with the coaching staff. This game though was a step in the right direction and a constructive loss. The 49ers found part of their offense. If they can find the other half, and reclaim the defense that started the season then this loss could prove extremely productive. More importantly though than fixing these areas, the team must stop putting itself in bad situations. That means cutting out the penalties, continuing the creativity throughout the offense, protecting the quarterback, not dropping the ball, and making the tackles they are in position to make.

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