Getting tough to discount Alex Smith, 49ers

November, 13, 2011
11/13/11
11:00
PM ET
Alex SmithKyle Terada/US PresswireThe Giants were able to shut down Frank Gore, but Alex Smith still managed to find a way to win.
SAN FRANCISCO -- There was nothing remotely "elite" about the blue work shirt Alex Smith wore following the San Francisco 49ers' 27-20 victory over the New York Giants in Week 10.

The team-issued shirt, untucked and featuring an "Alex" name patch sewn onto the left chest area, reflects the blue-collar mindset coach Jim Harbaugh has established since taking over the 49ers. Mechanics, not million-dollar athletes, typically wear them.

If that makes Smith merely a wardrobe manager without the fashion sense of Tom Brady or other elite NFL dressers, so be it. But if you're going to keep calling Smith a game manager, the 49ers will tell you he's more than that. With an 8-1 record, they've got some credibility.

"Managers belong in baseball," 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said from the winning locker room. "Tony La Russa was a manager. Alex Smith is a quarterback. He does what we ask him to do and he does it at a high level, so to be a game manager, that doesn't make sense to me."

The 49ers proved Sunday they could run the offense through Smith and still defeat a playoff-caliber team featuring a Super Bowl winning quarterback in Eli Manning. They threw 11 times in their first 13 plays and got only 50 yards from their running backs, including zero yards on six carries from Frank Gore, who injured a knee and did not finish the game.

Sure, the 49ers needed two interceptions and a furious defensive stand in the final minute. Yes, Manning made a few "wow" throws that Smith and other quarterbacks aren't likely to make. But this game will nonetheless put Smith's detractors on the defensive. It was the fourth time this season Smith and the 49ers turned a fourth-quarter deficit into a victory.

Smith did his part, completing 19 of 30 passes for 242 yards and the go-ahead touchdown pass to Vernon Davis in the fourth quarter. Smith also carried six times for 27 yards, with one run setting up a 39-yard field goal. Smith's lone interception bounced off receiver Ted Ginn Jr.'s hands, killing a likely scoring drive before halftime. Smith now has 19 touchdowns and four interceptions in his past 14 starts. The 49ers have an 11-3 record in those games.

"Alex has been around here 6-7 years and has been dealing with a lot of B.S. around here, people calling him a bust, people not believing in him," 49ers safety Donte Whitner said. "But all he needed was a good coaching staff with the right tools and the right techniques, the right reads, to get in and teach him what to do. And he is leading this team, leading our offense. All throughout that game, they challenged him to beat them."

Whitner spent three seasons in Buffalo under Perry Fewell, now the Giants' defensive coordinator. He was certain the Giants, like any smart team, would focus their attention on the 49ers' ground game. Gore had set a franchise record with five consecutive 100-yard games before Sunday. The Giants succeeded in their plan and still lost.

"I didn't think they were going to come out and start throwing," Giants cornerback Michael Coe said. "I figured they would hand off to Gore and try to get the running game going."

It would be unfair, Coe said, to compare Smith's role in the 49ers' offense to the roles other quarterbacks play.

"Brady, in that system, obviously is required to do a lot," said Coe, whose Giants were coming off a victory over the Patriots. "He makes a lot of throws, a lot of checks and in this [49ers] system, they allow [Smith] to make the throws at times and he did that, and they allow Gore to get the running game going. He did what he was supposed to do today."

The carefully worded doubt will continue all season if Harbaugh gets his wish.

"I believe in you guys, the media," Harbaugh said. "I believe that you will find a way. ... Alex Smith, you find a way to keep diminishing the guy. They call him a game manager and he's a great game manager, but you read it and you hear people talk about him and they're trying to slight him when they say that."

Smith completed 9 of 11 passes for 109 yards and a touchdown when targeting tight ends Sunday. He entered the game ranked second in completion percentage when targeting tight ends. His NFL passer rating was also second on these throws.

Those numbers, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information, illustrate the versatility San Francisco enjoys with two tight ends on the field. Davis and Delanie Walker are simply bigger and/or faster than the men assigned to cover them. But if opponents treat Davis and Walker as receivers, the 49ers can counter by running the ball the way teams traditionally have with two tight ends on the field.

The Giants busted a coverage on Davis' 31-yard scoring reception. Their quarterback on defense, linebacker Michael Boley, had left the game with a hamstring injury. The 49ers exploited his absence on this play and others. The Giants have played short-handed on defense much of the season. They lost multiple defenders for stretches Sunday, including cornerbacks Aaron Ross and Corey Webster.

"You need all your people," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "San Francisco has played with everybody, all year long."

Not quite. The 49ers have stayed relatively healthy on defense, but I wouldn't call it a fluke. They're big and powerful on that side of the ball because their current and former personnel people have long thought those types of players held up better over a full season.

Defensive end Justin Smith, who batted down Manning's final pass on fourth down to preserve the 49ers' victory, has started 164 consecutive games, most among NFL defensive linemen. Inside linebacker Patrick Willis, who collected a sack and generally dominated, almost never misses games.

[+] EnlargeDavid Akers
AP Photo/Ben MargotDavid Akers made all four of his field-goal attempts.
As much as Smith earned our attention with his administration of a pass-oriented game plan, the 49ers' formula for success draws strength from its diversity:

  • Dominant special teams. The Giants' best starting field possession on 10 possessions was their own 22-yard line. The 49ers' average starting field position was their own 35. They also recovered a surprise onside kick. David Akers made all four field goal attempts, including his fifth in as many attempts from 50-plus yards this season.
  • Smart quarterbacking. Smith's lone interception Sunday bounced off his receiver's hands. Smith took only two sacks.
  • Ballhawking defense: Cornerback Carlos Rogers collected two more interceptions, both on passes traveling at least 15 yards past the line of scrimmage. The 49ers now have 10 interceptions on those throws, up from four all last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. This was the eighth time in nine games the 49ers forced at least two turnovers.
  • Four-man pressure. Manning completed 81.8 percent of his passes with an 11-yard average per attempt when the 49ers sent more than four rushers. The 49ers rushed a defensive back only once, and Manning burned them with a 32-yard touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks on that play. But San Francisco collected both picks and forced 11 incomplete passes when rushing four or fewer, which was 73 percent of the time.
  • Inventive coaching. Last week, the 49ers drew up a 30-yard touchdown pass to their fullback. This time, they lined up receiver Michael Crabtree in the backfield and got him open for a successful two-point conversion. There were other wrinkles, as always.

The stat sheet will tell you the Giants held a 21-16 edge in first downs, a 395-305 advantage in total yards and nearly doubled up the 49ers in third-down conversion rate. It will tell you Manning passed for 311 yards while the Giants' defense shut down Gore.

It will tell you Smith put up modest numbers for an offense that ran only 52 plays while losing time of possession by roughly nine minutes.

Make of it what you wish.

"As long as all that is written is written against us, we'll be happy," Harbaugh said.

Two games against Arizona, two against St. Louis and one against Seattle await the 49ers. They've also got a Thanksgiving game at Baltimore and a Monday nighter at home against Pittsburgh, two more chances to beat playoff teams.

Something tells me the 49ers, like their quarterback, will find a way to manage.

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