With Colin Kaepernick still in the developmental stage of his career, Alex Smith appears to be the undisputed starting quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers in 2011. And although we are familiar with him, most of us are not comfortable with him behind center. Smith was expected to improve under the tutelage of quarterback guru and new head coach Jim Harbaugh.
The only previews we have gotten of Smith's progression have been from the first two preseason games and mostly word of mouth from training camp. The first preseason game against the New Orleans Saints was a travesty stemming from problems in protection. Though the things Harbaugh assured they would improve on came to fruition in the second game against the Oakland Raiders.
It was the difference between night and day, not just for Smith, but for the entire squad. The offensive line played well in pass protection and run blocking, which allowed Smith to actually get into a rhythm. Against New Orleans, the first team offense led by Smith began the game with three 3 & outs. There wasn't any actual production until Colin Kaepernick stepped in and the backups were in for both teams.
The first offensive outing against Oakland was a 7-play, 8:45 drive with crowd support. The series ended in a botched field goal, but once San Francisco entered the red zone, they stopped passing. This was confusing because for as harshly critiqued as Smith has been, his red zone numbers have been exceptional. In the red zone, Smith has maintained a 118.8 quarterback rating, second only to Dallas' Tony Romo.
Having added Braylon Edwards, it was peculiar as to why Harbaugh didn't call a fade to the corner or any type of jump ball. Despite the fact that we have not seen a touchdown connection between Smith and Edwards, the 49ers have reason to believe the passing game will be much improved with him now on the roster. They will certainly be even more threatening in the red zone, with defenses having to worry about Vernon Davis and Braylon Edwards; not to mention Frank Gore out of the backfield or Michael Crabtree running quick slants.
Smith should continue to excel in the red zone but the middle of the field is just as important. We want to see if he has improved as a passer on first and third down situations. Perhaps it was because he knew it was only the preseason, but Smith looked calm and collected against the Raiders.
On a third and long, Smith connected on an out route to tight end Vernon Davis for a first down with pressure in his face. In fact, Smith showed the courage to step up into a hit in order to deliver the football to the receiver. This is the sort of selfless team-first mentality Harbaugh has been looking for at every position. In the past, we've seen him panic and throw an erratic pass, or collapse into the fetal position with rushers closing in on him.
Smith seems to understand that this is his all or nothing year. On first down, he stepped into a hit from Raider's defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, and delivered a perfect throw to Josh Morgan for a 33-yard gain. Smith also connected twice with the brief time he had on the field with Braylon Edwards; one of the two catches was a beauty.
Smith arched a perfect pass right over the defender where only Edwards could make the catch, and he did so, one-handed. The 32-yard gain looked effortless by both parties, indicating a potential chemistry brewing. Every football fan knows how effective Vernon Davis is with the chemistry he has established with Smith. If Edwards does the same, we can expect big numbers from him -- big numbers that can translate into wins. (Breakdown of Smith-Edwards 32-yard Connect)
Alex Smith seems to have grown, although the consensus of his performance thus far has been mostly negative. His drives have not ended in touchdowns and he is 10 for 20, for 136 yards, no touchdowns and 1 interception, earning him a quarterback rating of 51.3. This may seem bleak but the rest of the league's passers have not fared much better this preseason (See: Michael Vick, Drew Brees).
The preseason is supposed to be taken with a grain of salt, so with that in mind, Niners supporters should be mindful of the improvement Smith has shown. This is most likely his last hoorah in red and gold, and since 49ers Faithful must accept him as the starter for 2011, it wouldn't be the worst thing to be in his corner when the regular season rolls around.
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