On the 49ers' willingness to throw deep

One prevailing question for the San Francisco 49ers this season has tapped into skepticism underlying their successful start.

Sure, the 49ers have had some success without opening up their offense much, but what happens when they're inevitably forced to become more aggressive?

The question has some legitimacy.

2011 Passes Traveling 15+ Yards Downfield

Alex Smith's passes have traveled, on average, only 6.5 yards past the line of scrimmage, tied with Colt McCoy for lowest in the NFL this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. But when the 49ers have asked Smith to strike downfield, the results have so far been positive. The chart at right shows completion percentages, yards per attempt and passer ratings for Smith and Week 5 opponent Josh Freeman on passes traveling at least 15 yards past the line of scrimmage.

One of the weekly breakdowns I receive shows Smith ranking with Aaron Rodgers, Matt Cassel, Tony Romo, Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Kevin Kolb and Matt Hasselbeck among the eight most effective quarterbacks on passes traveling more than 20 yards downfield.

Smith has completed 3 of 5 such attempts for 103 yards. The five attempts are a low number; the other quarterbacks listed above had 14.2 such attempts on average. But nothing about the results on Smith's longer passes should discourage additional longer attempts. His deep throw to Michael Crabtree for a 38-yard gain against Philadelphia was perfectly delivered between two defenders and preceded by a pump fake.

Alex Smith's Passes 21+ Yards Downfield

The second chart compares Smith's production through Week 4 with his 2010 production on passes traveling more than 20 yards downfield.

Tight end Vernon Davis' big-play production bears monitoring. He had five receptions of at least 40 yards last season. He has none through four games, but his per-catch average has perked up over the past couple weeks. Receiver Braylon Edwards, sidelined by injury recently, also has zero 40-plus receptions this season after getting five in 2010.

There is nothing magical about the 40-yard cutoff. It's just a figure the NFL tracks and makes available as part of its regular statistics, and a general indicator of big-play production regardless of how far passes travel beyond the line of scrimmage.