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49ers In The Red Zone

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When Alex Smith speaks with the media this year, he has done a fairly solid job of replicating his head coach's ability to say very little while answering a lot of questions. In his pre-practice Q&A yesterday, he actually provided some insight that isn't stunning, but is something worth noting:

The wide receivers haven't gotten into the end zone much, how have they dealt with that with you?

"We're winning. I think that's all that matters. Especially for those guys, no question they want to be in it, they want to score touchdowns, we all want that. But, just the style of games we've been in, the type of games, the way that the games have gone, that's just the way it's happened. But no question, I think me included and the guys outside, I think our production, especially in the red zone, needs to get better."

The 49ers have done a solid job of putting points on the board this season, ranked seventh in the league. However, they have had some issues down in the red zone when it comes to punching the ball in. If they are going to take this thing to the next level this season, some improvement in the red zone would be nice.

As it currently stands, Alex Smith is 13 of 28 for 83 yards and five touchdowns in the red zone. I don't have rankings of QBs in the red zone, but you can check them out team by team at I did a quick look at a handful of quarterbacks and found these numbers:

Aaron Rodgers: 28/44 (63.6%), 204 yards, 17/0 TD/INT
Tom Brady: 40/68 (58.8%), 296 yards, 21/2 TD/INT
Andy Dalton: 24/40 (60.0%), 174 yards, 11/0 TD/INT
Alex Smith: 13/28 (46.4%), 83 yards, 5/0 TD/INT

This past weekend, Alex Smith had a couple close chances for a sixth red zone touchdown. He had some missed opportunities due both to himself and his receivers. If the 49ers could get just a little bit more efficient in the red zone, they could improve their comfort level week in and week out. Both the 49ers and Giants struggled to put the ball in the end zone from down close. If either team had had more success down inside the 20, that might have been an entirely different game.

QB Alex Smith
Press Conference - November 16, 2011
San Francisco 49ers

Listen to Audio I Media Center 

The NFL game plan vary sometimes widely week to week, is this year more so than previous years, or are you finding that you're having to do a lot more before the game than you have in the past?

"I don't know if it's necessarily new stuff. These are all things that we've done through training camp and are all in the offense. It's not like there's anything getting invented week to week, so to speak. But yeah, there's definitely-obviously when you're playing a 3-4 team this week, you're playing 4-3 team this week, there's protections and run games and things like that that are all specific to those fronts. So, week in and week out they change, but they're all things that we put in through camp, and obviously anticipating that, that we had a fair amount of 3-4 teams we were going to play." 

How much has kind of been on the backburner because WR Braylon Edwards was out, WR Michael Crabtree was kind of stunted because of his foot issue, at this point in the season how much more are you able to go back to what you did in training camp with those two players out?

"I don't know. Not as much with those guys, obviously I think a little bit. We're going to run what we're going to run. We're going to have the core of our stuff. It's not necessarily going to change. All our guys do it outside. They can all do everything. So, not something we're changing week to week." 

The wide receivers haven't gotten into the end zone much, how have they dealt with that with you?

"We're winning. I think that's all that matters. Especially for those guys, no question they want to be in it, they want to score touchdowns, we all want that. But, just the style of games we've been in, the type of games, the way that the games have gone, that's just the way it's happened. But no question, I think me included and the guys outside, I think our production, especially in the red zone, needs to get better." 

People are starting to ask the question, when do the 49ers and Alex Smith come up with a contract extension for the future, is that something that's been talked about yet with you?

"Not something I've talked about, or even really thought about. It's so early. I'm focused on playing football. That's not something I would want to think about in the middle of the season, to be honest with you. It's so fun coming to work every day with the group of guys we have, and doing what we're doing. So, not thinking about that right now." 

After the offseason that you had and the level of trust obviously between people here, is that something that you can just say, don't bother me until January?

"I think so, I do. I just think with the guys upstairs, [General Manager] Trent [Baalke], Coach Harbaugh, that's something that we can deal with later." 

Alex, you broke out the dropback passing game last week. Number one, you looked comfortable, how did you feel? Number two, now the teams have to kind of respect that that you guys have, and not just run-play action.

"Yeah, the first time we've really come out, especially in the first half, and done something like that to that extent. So, like I said, we've put in so much, we've had so much in through training camp and things like that, it wasn't like anything new we put in that week. Just running our stuff, but the first time we really made an emphasis of it coming out. So, no question I think that obviously the five weeks prior to that it had been run-heavy and deservedly so, just look at the production we've been having, the way the guys up front have been playing and [RB] Frank [Gore] and [RB] Kendall [Hunter] have been running. But, we needed that I think and to show that, and you can't be one sided. You have to be balanced in this league." 

What have you observed from Running Backs Coach Tom Rathman? He came and visited us last week for a short time, and he wants his players to hurt guys. Harbaugh calls him the tough-love coach, he tells it like it is, can you share any stories there?

"Yeah no beating around the bush, he's going to call it how he sees it. He's going to call everyone out. It's not like Frank's in there and because Frank's our guy he gets it easy, everybody's getting called out if you're not on your stuff. He's by far, hands-down, the best running back coach I've ever been around. Understanding those guys, getting those guys ready to go, he just understands football the best when it comes to protections and pressures. He's just on it, a true professional. All the details of those positions, fullback and running back. It's a tribute to how those guys play every week. Especially in protection, I feel like' something that as a running back, those guys get paid to run the football. Protections aren't something that often times get noticed from them, it isn't what they get paid to do. And all those guys take a lot of pride in it, and I think it starts with Tom. He's the guy that sparks all that." 

Does he still do the ‘bring it' periods?

"Yeah he does all that. We still do the pressure. He does all the pressure. He leads all that." 

Alex, I forget the exact wording, but Harbaugh has basically been calling you an elite quarterback. I know you don't like addressing the subject of yourself, but do you consider yourself moving in that direction, are you in that category?

"I guess I'll say this, yeah, it's not something I'm thinking about. I think wining games, I know it's cliché, but that's it. I guess I've always felt like no question, when I play to my potential absolutely. It was matter of doing it and doing it consistently. Elite I think really means, in this league, elite is not just showing it. It is week in and week out playing at that level. That's what I define it as. It's not just having a game here, having a game there, and then the next week you're-the ups and downs, I think the true elite guys, when you look at them, do it week in and week out. And that's what obviously all quarterbacks especially myself aspire to get to, to play consistent week in and week out. You don't have those drop offs, you don't have those. Yeah obviously things are going to happen, but for the most part you're playing at a high level all the time." 

Do you think you're playing at a pretty high level right now?

"That's for you guys. Like I said, I really feel like I'm playing the quarterback position. I'm doing what's asked of me. I'm really focused on making good decisions and letting plays come to me, not forcing those. Where in the past I really felt like a lot of times I tried to take things on my shoulders and make plays. That was my mindset, I've got to go out there and make plays. Whereas I really feel like I'm just playing the quarterback position, distributing the football, and finding that those plays just kind of come to me." 

You mentioned recently that the encouragement to take the ball down and run it yourself was important, why do you think that was so important for you to realize that, it seems pretty natural, why was that so specifically?

"Yeah it might sound like it, but when the emphasis is dropping back, sitting in the pocket, and trying to make the throw all the time, and you're doing it every single day in training, that's what happens on game day. I think the fundamentals of the quarterback position, you constantly are working at, and that's how they get to show up on game day because when you're out there on game day you just play, I'm not thinking about those things. So, in the past I worked so hard and trained just to stay in the pocket and delivering the footballs, and all of a sudden I really felt like for a few years there that wasn't something that I did a lot of, because of that." 

Alex, whether it was the first time you met Coach Harbaugh, or when he came to the hospital to visit your wife, what did you learn about him during the offseason?

"It's hard to say one thing. A lot of things, obviously we were just getting to know each other. I think the thing I really appreciate a lot about him and I think is rare in the world, especially in the NFL, is he's not so self-aware. He's not always caring what people think about him. He just is who he is. He's a very authentic guy. He's not concerned with who's watching him, or what they might think of him, he just is who he is. And I love that, I love that about him that he's totally authentic." 

I understand the first time he met with most of you guys there wasn't much football discussed, what was your situation like when he first came, your first meeting, how much football, how much life?

"Yeah, I would say the opposite. No question, yeah, cordially he's going to ask about me and things that are going on in my life. But, very quickly for me and him, it was about football. Yeah, it was watching film, it was talking football. It was things like that." 

Everything people have said that you can't do on the football field this year you've proven that you can. The one thing people still question is, are you a good deep passer. Are you a good deep passer?

"Yeah, I think so. I think you look at years in the past, that's all we did. We were a down-the-field throwing team and all of a sudden I think it's just a different situation. I think we have much more balance in the passing game this year with underneath, intermediate routes, and the deep ball. Whereas in the past, very heavy in just throwing it down the field and trying to push the ball vertical." 

Does the field look different when you're throwing it deep, is that a stupid question?

"No. Not necessarily, it doesn't look different. There are just so many different types of deep routes when you're trying to throw the ball vertical. Are we talking play action, are we trying to spread the ball out and further get vertical. So, it just depends on the play."

Alex, in the past you've talked about just having bragging rights over LB Patrick Willis in practice, that's something you've talked about in years past that's been motivation for you. This year I know Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio is trying to pick up his blitzing as quarterback pressure, but what do you see different from Patrick in practices this year that maybe you haven't seen in the past?

"I mean this in the best way, I don't see a difference. Pat's always been a professional. The guy hasn't done anything different. He works harder than anybody. He practices every single day. He comes out here as a true team-guy first. So, as far as his routine and his preparation, nothing's changed I don't think. Obviously, there's a new system, a new scheme, and I think he's playing into that. But, as far as his routine, the type of player he is, the type of teammate he is, in the locker room and on the field, he's always the same." 

Does he have any new skills?

"I think the thing I've seen most, at least just watching the game, and it's hard for me to tell, I'm so focused on us, on offense, but just watching him I think the thing I see a lot of improvement on is his pass coverage. And it's the same thing, linebackers get paid to tackle, you get paid to pressure and sacks and things like that. Those are the stats that get mentioned when you hear linebacker. No one talks about him and all the man coverage he plays, all the pass break ups, things like that, what he does for us in the pass game. That's something I think I feel like he's grown more comfortable at, and has made a lot of plays for us."