Break It Down: Alex Smith’s breakthrough
In Break It Down, I will go back and analyze the Xs and Os of a notable play or performance from Sunday’s games.
Don’t look now, but the San Francisco 49ers are 3-1 and hold a commanding early lead in the NFC West. The Niners’ success thus far has gone hand-in-hand with the long-awaited maturation of QB Alex Smith.
Smith threw for 291 yards and two TDs Sunday in San Francisco’s stunning 24-23 win in Philadelphia, a game that the Eagles once led 23-3. Through four weeks of the regular season, Smith sits No. 5 in the league with a 67.3 completion percentage and is in the top 10 in QB rating at 97.7.
His previous career highs in those two stats: 60.5 and 82.1, respectively.
So far, Smith’s 2011 performance has to be considered a major jump. How is he doing it? Week 4 put the methods fully on display — the 49ers are using their run game and short, quick passing routes to help set up bigger strikes. And more than that, Smith’s decision-making appears to have vastly improved.
But we’ll get to that. Before we can talk about what went right in the 49ers’ second-half comeback Sunday, let’s look at what went wrong early:
That’s the 49ers’ formation for a 3rd-and-6 in the second quarter, deep in their own territory. San Francisco sends five wide, including running back Kendall Hunter and tight end Vernon Davis. The Eagles counter with a man-to-man, two-deep defense, leaving four to rush.
The 49ers’ offensive line still can’t hold up. Jason Babin (No. 93 in green) stunts to the inside and comes clean. Smith sees him, takes a couple steps to his left, then fires off his back foot to Davis, but the pass winds up bouncing shy of the first-down marker.
Throughout the first half, thanks to poor offensive line play and penalties, Smith often found himself in 3rd-and-medium to 3rd-and-long spots with a pass rush in his face. The effects of that prevented Smith from really exploring anything downfield — something that lingered into the second half.
Here’s Smith on 3rd-and-6 from the Eagles 29 on San Fran’s opening second-half drive:
The protection’s OK, but Smith is still throwing a check-down route to Michael Crabtree, who’s the receiver at the top of that picture at the Philly 28. The play gained two yards, then David Akers missed a field goal on fourth down.
By the time the 49ers got the ball back, it was 23-3 Eagles and San Francisco had to open the playbook. They threw on first down for four yards, then went to the air again on second down.
That play was the first where we really saw Smith’s development as a QB. The pocket imploded, forcing Smith to roll to his right, resulting in this:
The boxed player is Kendall Hunter. Smith has two Eagles closing from the back, with a pair of defenders between he and Hunter. In the past, this probably would’ve ended one of two ways: 1. Smith runs out of bounds, taking whatever yardage he can get; or 2. Smith throws an interception.
This time around, Smith floats a perfect pass over the top to Hunter, who races 44 yards into Eagles territory. Two plays later, the 49ers scored on another terrific play by Smith.
On 2nd-and-8 from the Philadelphia 30, the Eagles decided to bring heavy pressure — a safety blitz that sent seven defenders toward the quarterback.
Smith immediately saw the blitz, recognized where it was coming from and threw right at it. Cornerback Asante Samuel — who played the pass horribly, by the way — had no help on the inside with the safety spot voided.
As a result, Josh Morgan had almost the whole field to himself:
Smith fired in a strike, and Morgan took it to the house. The completion itself was easy — diagnosing the Eagles defense and finding the best option with a blitz coming should have been the hard part. Smith never even flinched.
San Francisco scored again on its next possession, with Smith finally stretching the field after two-plus quarters of short routes. And the opening play of that drive was another terrific display of Smith’s ability.
Crabtree faked a little hitch route — like he’d been running all day — then sprinted up the sideline past Nnamdi Asomugha. Smith gave him time to come open, then delivered a pass into this tight window:
There’s separation there … but not much. And again, Asomugha — one of the NFL’s best defenders — is the man trying to catch up. The play went for 38 yards, taking San Francisco into Philly territory.
Two minutes later, the 49ers found the end zone again. On 2nd-and-8 from the Eagles 9, despite the fact that Frank Gore was en route to a 127-yard rushing day, San Francisco came out in a shotgun formation. The No. 1 option on the play was Vernon Davis, who ran an easy little stick pattern.
But take a couple things away from that picture. First off, the Eagles are showing just a four-man rush — the shotgun has Philadelphia expecting the pass, and at the 9-yard line, that means seven defenders in a tight window.
Second is that Davis definitely needs some time to break free from the clutter at the line, get upfield and make a move to shake the coverage.
The line holds up long enough for Smith to wait out that delay, then throws a strike to Davis’ outside shoulder, allowing him to catch it and spin into the end zone. It would’ve been impossible to do it any better.
And in case you’re still not sold on Smith’s progress, here’s the play that killed San Francisco’s next drive:
Smith is chasing down a fumble after a shotgun snap went through his hands. Even last year, the odds of this situation not ending in a turnover — either Smith continuing to bobble the ball or throwing one up for grabs — were pretty low.
On this day, though, Smith manages to pick up the football, spin away from a rushing defender and throw the ball out of bounds to avoid intentional grounding.
San Francisco survived that potentially killer blunder, then scored the game-winning TD on its next drive.
Smith still needs to prove he can play at a high level for an entire season. But, after more than six long years of waiting, it looks like Smith may have finally turned a corner. He certainly made believers out of the Eagles.