Tag:Alex Smith
Posted on: January 14, 2012 6:23 pm
 

Physical 49ers jump out to lead, up 17-14 at half

San Francisco's offense was aggressive and impressive in the first half. (AP)
By Will Brinson

The 49ers had to get physical with the Saints to compete against New Orleans high-octane offense and they did just that early in the game Saturday, forcing three early turnovers to jump out to a 17-0 lead. But Drew Brees is kind of good and led two masterful second-quarter scoring drives to cut the lead to 17-14 at halftime in San Francisco.

It's a testament to just how explosive the Saints offense is that they're in the game; a pair of fumbles (one in the 49ers red zone, the other in the Saints red zone) and a pair of Brees picks in the first half should be nearly impossible to overcome.

Speaking of testaments, it's a testament to Alex Smith's career that his first career game with two touchdowns in the first quarter came on Saturday against the Saints. But we shouldn't knock Smith, considering how good he looked in the first half, 12 of 20 for 130 yards, two touchdowns and no picks.

It was the 49ers defense that deserves the most props for the first 30 minutes though. They were absolutely physical, hawked the mess out of the ball, flustered the Saints skill position guys and swarmed to the ballcarrier on plays that typically work well for the Saints, like screens to Darren Sproles.

Donte Whitner, in particular, was absolutely terrifying, forcing a fumble by Pierre Thomas (and knocking him out of the game) and generally wrecking shop/laying wood all over the field with big hits.

Whitner also provided a pretty good summary of the first half, in GIF form:

Whitner's absolutely laying wood against the Saints. (Mocksession.com)

With the 49ers holding just a three-point lead, it's anyone's game, obviously. And we'd be remiss to forget the second-half performance by the Saints last week at home against Detroit when assuming this will remain close.

But with the way the 49ers defense is playing, it would be shocking if the first Divisional Round game of the weekend didn't come down to the wire.

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Posted on: January 14, 2012 12:19 pm
 

Alex Smith to get $1M bonus for playing Saturday

Smith will get an extra $1 million for playing Saturday. (Getty Images)
By Will Brinson

On Saturday, Alex Smith will do what many felt was unthinkable this year: start a playoff game for the 49ers. And when San Francisco welcomes New Orleans to the west coast, and Smith takes his first snap, he'll also be $1 million richer.

That's because, according to a report from Adam Schefter of ESPN, Smith playing in a playoff game triggers a bonus in his contract -- a one-year deal signed prior to this season -- that pays him an extra million.

In order to activate this bonus, Smith also had to play in more than 70 percent of the 49ers snaps, but he cruised past that easily in 2011.

Smith's 2011 season under new coach Jim Harbaugh has been a revelation: he completed 61.3 percent of his passes, threw for 3,144 yards (both career highs) and led the NFL with a league-low 1.1 percent interception rate. His 7.1 yards per attempt is a career high, as is his 90.7 quarterback rating.

His lack of mistakes and efficiency in the Niners new offense is what put them over the top as a contender this season; there's little question that the extra million bucks the 49ers will shell out for actually getting to the playoffs is worth it.

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Posted on: January 11, 2012 3:15 pm
Edited on: January 12, 2012 11:49 am
 

Film Room: 49ers vs. Saints divisional preview


Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit

The league’s No. 2 scoring offense meets the No. 2 scoring defense at Candlestick on Saturday.

Neither side has faced this tall of an order this season. Here’s the breakdown.


1. Niners inside ‘backers on Saints stars
NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis are the reason San Francisco had the league’s best all-around defense in 2011. Both are smart, supremely athletic and adept in traffic and space. Thus, both can play run or pass at the highest of levels, which is why neither comes off the field much.

All season long, defenses have tried to figure out not just how to stop Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles, but how to simply line up against them. Do you use safeties on Graham and linebackers on Sproles? Vice Versa? Do you go with cornerbacks for both and risk getting run on?

The Niners might be the first team that doesn’t have to worry about personnel packages against these two, as they may put one First Team All-Pro linebacker on Graham and the other First Team All-Pro linebacker on Sproles. Whether the Niners can win those matchups is another discussion, but defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is extremely fortunate to be able to even consider it.

Instead of having his players focus on new strategies, he can have them focus on execution.

2. Handling the rest of New Orleans’ passing attack
The 49ers generally play zone out of their base defense and man when they go nickel or dime. Because Graham is like a third wide receiver, the Saints can stay predominantly in their base personnel if they’re more comfortable facing zone coverage. That should be the case Saturday, as San Fran’s cornerbacking trio of Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver outside and Carlos Rogers inside has been tremendous in man-to-man.

Those three are capable of matching up with Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem and Marques Colston – especially if safeties Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson are providing help as free roamers over the top.

Whitner is somewhat limited in coverage (his success tends to come when linebackers are blitzing, which defines the routes quickly and makes them easier to jump). Goldson, on the other hand, is very rangy.

Both players must be careful not to overreact to the subtle fakes and body language of Drew Brees. No quarterback manipulates deep safeties better than the new single season passing yards record holder.

Pressuring Brees is critical to stopping New Orleans. (Getty Images)

3. Pressuring Brees
San Francisco is willing to blitz but often doesn’t have to, thanks to the speed of edge-rushers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. Smith works extremely well with All-Pro defensive end/tackle Justin Smith on the left side when it comes to twists and stunts. That’s something the Saints left offensive line has struggled with over the years.

This season, however, athletic left tackle Jermon Bushrod has finally polished his pass-blocking mechanics and perennial Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks has ironed out the kinks he had in lateral pass-blocking movement. Nicks is also great at picking up Bushrod’s slack as a help-blocker.

The real key will be whether the right side of the Saints’ line can keep Brees clean. This Saints started clicking after their loss to the Rams, when Sean Payton tweaked the protections to give his tackles help with chip blocks from backs and tight ends. That’s the only way the Saints could survive the slow feet of right tackle Zach Strief.

If Ahmad Brooks draws even one true solo matchup against Strief on third-and-long, it means something has gone terribly wrong. (Or, it means the Niners will have gambled with an overload pass-rush on that side, which is plausible given that Bowman and Willis are both excellent blitzers.)

4. Niners run game against Saints D
The Niners make no bones about it: they’re going to win with Frank Gore, not Alex Smith. They’re a power-run offense – literally. Most of their offense derives from power plays, with left guard Mike Iupati pulling and fullback Bruce Miller or H-back Delanie Walker lead-blocking. The Saints have the personnel to stop this.

Former Niners tackle Aubrayo Franklin is a clogger inside and, when he shows up, veteran Shaun Rogers is a destroyer off the bench behind the generally incognito Sedrick Ellis. Also, defensive ends Will Smith and Cameron Jordan might not have dazzling sack numbers (Jordan, this year’s first round pick, recorded all of one), but both are superb at crashing inside or sliding down the line of scrimmage.

At the second level, Jonathan Vilma is regarded as the star (and rightfully so – he calls the signals and patrols sideline-to-sideline), but strong safety Roman Harper might be the deciding character on Saturday. Harper’s presence is what makes the Saints’ front seven so fast.

That will be especially important when backup running back Kendall Hunter, an underrated tempo-changer with better quickness and burst than Frank Gore, is in the game.

5. Niners big pass plays vs. Saints secondary
Jim Harbaugh is masterful at installing simple wrinkles in his offense each week that take advantage of the opponent’s greatest weakness. This week that means building a few downfield shot-plays into the passing game.

The Saints led the league in 40-plus-yard pass plays allowed during the regular season. The Niners know that if they keep extra blockers in for pass protection help (which their O-line needs, especially at tackle, where Joe Staley is very average on the left side and Anthony Davis, despite getting an embarrassingly nonsensical All-Pro vote, is very inconsistent on the right side), the Saints, with their green-dog heavy blitz packages, will bring the house:

In case you missed it, in last Saturday night’s broadcast, Cris Collinsworth did a great job explaining a green dog blitz. A green-dog blitz is when a defender in man coverage rushes the quarterback after he sees that his man has stayed in to block. Thanks to the speed and aggression of their linebackers, the Saints green-dog blitz as effectively as any team in football.

Thus, there are one-on-one matchups to be had downfield. Though San Francisco’s offense has been Gingrich-level conservative this season, downfield shots off play-action, particularly when the ball’s just inside midfield, have actually been a consistent element in their gameplans.

The Niners have to intentionally design their big plays because, other than maybe tight end Vernon Davis, they don’t have anyone who can conjure them naturally.

Michael Crabtree has great body control but “inexplosive” speed. Kyle Williams is quick out of the slot but not over the top. Ted Ginn has playmaking POTENTIAL but isn’t consistent enough to be considered an actual PLAYMAKER.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all the Divisional Round games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: January 8, 2012 8:51 pm
Edited on: January 8, 2012 10:12 pm
 

Sorting the Sunday Pile, Wild Card: Ranking Tebow

Posted by Will Brinson


Sorting the Sunday Pile takes all of Sunday's NFL action, figures out the winners and losers and asks the big questions. Send your complaints, questions and comments to Will Brinson on Twitter. Listen to the Pick-Six Podcast Wild-Card Weekend recap below and don't forget to
subscribe via iTunes
.

Ranking the Remaining QBs

Are you ----ing kidding me? Did that just happen? That, of course, is Tim Tebow hitting Demaryius Thomas for an 80-yard, walk-off touchdown in the first-ever game featuring the new NFL overtime rules to push Denver past Pittsburgh and into the Divisional Round of the playoffs.

The lesson, as always? You're gonna want to have someone who can sling the rock when the playoffs roll around and Tebow somehow morphed into that in the first round of the playoffs against one of the all-time great defenses. But where does he rank with the rest of the quarterbacks remaining in the playoffs?

8. T.J. Yates, Houston Texans
With all due respect to the only former UNC quarterback to win a playoff game, he just doesn't stack up with the rest of the folks in the playoffs. That being said, he's a perfect fit for the zone-stretch offense that the Texans run, and as long as he doesn't have to do too much, he's fine. He's probably gonna have to do too much against the Ravens this week.

7. Alex Smith, San Francisco 49ers
Smith's been incredibly improved in 2011 so it's not like this is taking a potshot at him. Smith had his best season -- by far -- of his career, throwing just five picks and completing 61.3 percent of his passes. But you're telling me you're taking Smith if you need to win a game? No, no you're not.

6. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens
Flacco's had great moments this year, but his inconsistency is absolutely terrifying. Seven times (seven!) he's gone under 200 yards passing on the season, and many times this year the Ravens have been forced to overcome his poor play. Some of those times, they just don't lean on Flacco because they have a beasty run game and a really good defense. But that's not exactly helping his cause, you know?

5. Tim Tebow, Denver Broncos
COME ON DOWN THE OLD KOOL-AID FILLED RABBIT HOLE! But, no, seriously. Tebow made throws on Sunday night that he's not supposed to make. And he did it against a defense that doesn't let most quarterbacks make throws like that, much less a would-be remedial QB like Tebow. But he brings a running game, he brings an improved passing game, he brings along the worst wide receiver corps (by far) of anyone in the playoffs and he brings along the dreaded intangibles.

4. Eli Manning, New York Giants
Eli's a top-five quarterback in the NFL this season, and he's got a legitimate case to be right there in Tom Brady's class (just like he said before the season!). When it comes down to it, though, you're not taking him for a playoff stretch run over any of the rest of the guys on the list. At least not yet anyway ... (But yes, there's a HUGE gap between 1-4 and 5-8.)

3. Tom Brady, New England Patriots
People keep saying that Brady does the most with the least but that argument's kind of ridiculous when Rob Gronkowski just wrapped up the greatest season by a tight end in the history of the NFL. Three here, by the way, is like "1c."

2. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
The third quarterback in NFL history to throw for 450 yards in a playoff game.

1. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Last I checked he's still the defending champion. Plus, he's got the mobility that no one else on this list (even Tebow) has, he's the most accurate quarterback on the run and he's working on a week's rest in addition to two weeks of hearing everyone talk about how he's not the best quarterback left in the playoffs.

Winners

Josh McDaniels: Not only is the former Broncos head coach and Patriots offensive coordinator now back with the Patriots but he's going to play against Tim Tebow next week. This is a good thing because McDaniels basically got fired for drafting Tebow. I mean, not entirely but it didn't help things. Doesn't everyone look kind of silly for not trusting him now.

T.J. Yates:
Yates was the rookie who was going to screw things up for his team, but instead he played the perfect foil to Andy Dalton's inconsistency, going 11 of 20 for 159 yards and a touchdown. Those aren't mind-blowing numbers, and 40 of the yards came on one touchdown pass to Andre Johnson, but Yates did exactly what he was supposed to do, which is "don't screw things up."

Overtime Rules: It -- literally -- took Ron Winter longer to explain the new overtime rules than it took the Broncos to end the overtime. One play to DeMaryius Thomas and that's it. Which is good for the NFL because a longer, more prolonged overtime opened up the possibility for mistakes by refs and scrutiny by media and fans. Instead now we think it works perfectly!

Pierre Thomas: Dude was kiliing it on Saturday and might be the biggest reason New Orleans won. He "only" scored once and but he put up 121 total yards and he fought for every freaking one of them; there's a reasonable chance 115 of them were after contact. Thomas' refusal to go down to the turf resulted in a lot of Saints drives getting extended a lot further than they should have, and he deserves props for his effort.

Cleveland Browns: When the Falcons were eliminated, the Browns locked up better draft picks in 2012, thanks to the Julio Jones trade. (They'll now pick a lot earlier, no worse than 23rd, in the first and fourth rounds.) Tom Heckhart also looks a little bit smarter today -- even if Julio Jones is special (he is) and even if the Falcons will eventually be more explosive (they should), that deal didn't work out the way the Falcons and Thomas Dimitroff thought it would. Yeah, they made the playoffs, but it was as a wild card and they didn't score a single point on Sunday.

Smith would like you to re-spot that ball, sir. (AP)

Losers

Mike Smith: Twice on Sunday, Smith had a controversial fourth-down decision to make. OK, the decisions weren't really that controversial, but the playcalls -- and the result -- were. Each time, once with Michael Turner on the freaking sideline, the Falcons snuck Ryan against a stout Giants defensive line, and each time, he was stuffed. Those decisions don't change the outcome of the game, per se, because the Giants still outscored Atlanta by more than six points, but Smith's going to answer a lot of questions about his decision-making.

Chris Crocker
: Crocker's a friend of the blog, so we don't want to rip him too hard, but that was a pretty terrible game from the Bengals safety. He dropped a crucial would-be pick-six at the start of the second half, he missed a sack of Yates, and his incredibly poor "tackling" on Arian Foster's 42-yard touchdown run is going to be replayed all week long. Not a good day for Crocker.

Lions Defense: It's not rare for a defense to get surgically dissected by Drew Brees. But the Lions have to be shaking their heads at missing a good chance at up-ending the Saints on Saturday because their defense couldn't get any penetration on Brees, couldn't make any stops on fourth downs, didn't make the Saints punt a single time and generally looked lost in coverage. They also dropped a pair of easy interceptions, one of which Eric Wright should've taken to the house.

Mike Mularkey: After a great season from the Falcons and a strong finish to the year, Mularkey's been a hot name as a coaching candidate and has a slew of interviews lined up. But the people looking to hire him for a full-time job are going to wonder about the incredibly conservative gameplan Mularkey dragged into the Meadowlands on Sunday, and how he managed to get outscored by Eli Manning 2-0. And then there's the short-yardage stuff (see: Mike Smith above). Smith's saying "go" but Mularkey's the guy dialing up the plays, and it might behoove teams to put him through a "Fourth-and-Short Playcalling Quiz" before giving him the gig.

John Elway: At halftime against Pittsburgh, Tim Tebow had thrown for 185 yards (all in the second quarter) and tied two of Elway's playoff records with the Broncos: he and Elway are the only Broncos quarterbacks with a) two 50-yard passes in the same game and b) a rushing and passing score in the same game. Oh and then he walked off the Steelers in overtime with an 80-yards pass. Please tell me how he's not going to bring Tebow back in 2012.

The Big Questions

 
Marvin needs to challenge his challenges. (AP)

1. What was Marvin Lewis thinking on those challenges?
He wasn't. The Bengals didn't lose because Lewis bungled a pair of first-half challenges, but that shouldn't excuse him for the actual bungling. Lewis gave away two timeouts and any chance of challenging in the second half by deciding that the Bengals (4/4 on short-yardage conversions against the Texans in Week 13) needed to challenge a bad spot on a second down and two that only went for one yard. Then he compounded it by challenging a catch in the second quarter, which allowed him to enter halftime with a deficit and no challenges.

2. Can the Saints win on the road?
Of course they can. But will they? The Saints are 0-4 in franchise history away from the Superdome when it comes to the playoffs and that's an applicable lesson for this year's team, who only played five games outside of a dome the entire year.

That's right: just five games. Now, the Saints know this. They talked about it with our own Pete Prisco after their win over Detroit on Saturday. The Saints are guaranteed nine games inside a year, because of eight home matchups and a game at division rival Atlanta. Here's what happened when they did venture away from the comfort of turf:

Week/Location Result Points Scored Passing Yards TD/INT Total Yards
Week 1 @ Green Bay L 34 419 3/0 477
Week 4 @ Jacksonville W 23 351 1/2 503
Week 5 @ Carolina W 30 359 2/1 444
Week 6 @ Tampa Bay L 20 383 1/3 453
Week 14 @ Tennessee W 22 337 2/0 437
Weekly Average N/A 34.2 334.2 2.9/0.9 467.1

Two of the Saints three losses this season came outside on the road, and they only went above 30 points twice on the road, despite averaging 34.2 points per game this season.

To paraphrase our Vice President, that's a big freaking deal.

3. Do Matt Ryan's playoff losses make him a bad quarterback?
No. But Ryan's the guy who'll be heavily judged over the next year with respect to his postseason performance, since he's now 0-3 in the playoffs. In those three games, Ryan's 70 of 110 for 584 passing yards, three touchdowns and four interceptions. He's definitely the victim of a) conservative gameplans and b) playing against good teams (the NFC Champion Cardinals, the Super Bowl Champion Packers and this year's Giants), but that isn't going to stop people from discussing the fact that his stats stink in the playoffs and he can't win. It's the same thing people said about Aaron Rodgers before last year.

4. Can the Giants really win the Super Bowl?
Damn right they can. The "shades of 2007" storyline is a bit played out at this point ... but it's just kind of true. They're a wild card that everyone counted out, Eli Manning's hitting his stride at the absolutely perfect time, they've got a running game that's shaping back up and their pass rush is absolutely deadly. This is the kind of the same team, just with different players. (San Fran up-ending the Saints and keeping the Giants away from the Superdome would help a lot, too.)

5. Did you really rank Tim Tebow FIFTH on the remaining quarterbacks list?
Yes. Let's just move on before I emerge from my overtime-induced blackout.

6. How bright is the future for the Lions?
Very bright. They'll obviously want to lock down Calvin Johnson at some point, and they need to get some secondary help this coming offseason, and getting Mikel Leshoure back to provide a power running game is critical. But Matthew Stafford's primed to be the next quarterback who warrants a debate for "elite" status, in case the 5,000+ yards he tossed in 2011 didn't clue you into that. 

7. Why did the Saints draft Mark Ingram?
Not sure. But it at least seemed like a good idea the time, right? Ingram was supposed to be the power runner for the Saints, but in his first season he averaged just 3.9 yards per carry and scored only five touchdowns. He's not playing now and Chris Ivory's performance on Saturday night really leads me to believe New Orleans could've gotten better value at a different position in April's draft.

8. Could Kevin Kolb land another big contract?

Possibly! Doing so would mean that Kolb would lose his first big contract though: Charley Casserly reported on Sunday that the Cardinals are a sleeper candidate for Peyton Manning if the Colts let him go. To make that happen, they'd obviously have to bail on Kolb's contract, which they can reportedly do at a fairly cheap cost. The timing is the issue though, since Kolb's roster bonus is due in March as well. But if it happens, Kolb could instantly become the third- or fourth-best quarterback available on the market, along with Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Matt Flynn. It's a longshot, but an interesting situation to watch nonetheless.

9. Does Tebow deserve all the credit for the Broncos win?

As usual, no. Tebow gets a ton of credit because he does some amazing things late in games, but let's be clear: the Steelers played pretty freaking badly on Sunday night. Their pass defense was AWFUL and they ran Ben Roethlisberger out on a bad ankle and looked anemic early on on offense. The Broncos defense deserves some credit too, of course, because they played a nice game. And so do Tebow's wide receivers. Just figure out a way to spread it around.

GIF O' THE WEEK

OH NO Hakeem Nicks DID NOT JUST DO THE DIRTY BIRD. OH YES HE DID Jamaal Anderson.

Worth 1,000 Words


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Posted on: January 7, 2012 11:43 pm
Edited on: January 8, 2012 12:01 am
 

Harbaugh prepared for Saints, gets them next week

Dallas' last loss caused one fan to take up arms. (Getty Images)

By Ryan Wilson

We joked on Friday's playoff preview podcast that maybe Jim Harbaugh was trying to stick it to archnenemy Jim Schwartz one last time by suggesting last week that the 49ers would focus most of their bye-week preparation on facing the Saints in the NFC Divisional round, even though there was a chance they could face the Falcons or Giants.


Harbaugh and Schwartz had trouble executing the post-game handshake back in October, when the 49ers went into Detroit and beat the then-undefeated Lions. (Turns out, the feud may have been brewing for months.) And we're guessing Schwartz relished the thought of going to San Francisco and beating Harbaugh in the 49ers' first playoff game since 2002.

First he and the Lions would have to get past the Saints in the Superdome.  Things starting well enough, but Drew Brees did what Drew Brees does and the final score wasn't close. Whether Harbaugh's Jedi mind trick backfired or if he really did spend most of the week planning for the Saints, New Orleans will take the field in San Francisco next Saturday at 4:30 p.m. ET.

So do the 49ers have a chance? Absolutey.

No word yet on the Vegas line (we'll guess Saints -7) but slowing Brees (forget about stopping him) in 2011 has proven nearly impossible. He threw for 5,476 yards during the regular season, including seven consecutive games of more than 300 yards, including 25 touchdowns and three interceptions.

But the 49ers aren't helpless; they have one of the league's most physical defenses (they were No. 3 overall, first against the run and eighth against the pass). San Francisco also has the advantage of playing at home, although Brees this season was just as effective outdoors as he was in a dome (69.6 percent vs. 72.1 percent; 95.7 passer rating vs. 118.7). As part of the preparation, Harbaugh might look at two games that show that the Saints are fallible.


Record-shattering Drew Brees threw for 466 yards and three touchdowns, and the New Orleans Saints poured it on in the second half for a 45-28 NFC wild-card victory over the Detroit Lions on Saturday night. 

First: the Seahawks' wild-card win over the Saints during the 2010 playoffs. Marshawn Lynch rushed for 131 yards and a touchdown in that game and the Saints didn't have an answer for him. They also scored 41 points. The 49ers don't have a workhorse like Lynch in their backfield, at least one who's healthy. (And they also don't score a ton of points.) Their running game ranks 24th, and Frank Gore, who has been banged up for most of the year, is near the bottom of the league among all running backs in terms of total value and value per play, according to Football Outsiders.

Second: during Week 2 of the 2010 season, the 49ers played the Saints tough in San Francisco, back when Mike Singletary was still patrolling the sidelines and Alex Smith was perpetually a play away from getting benched.

New Orleans won 25-22 on a last-second field goal. Gore rushed for 112 yards on 20 carries (5.6 yards per carry) in the game, and Smith threw for 275 yards, completing 23 of 32 passes. Brees, meanwhile, managed just 254 yards in the air. (In the 30 regular-season games since, Brees has thrown for fewer yards once.)

But 20 months later and both teams are different. The Saints' offense is as finely tuned as any offense ever, and the 49ers have gone from eight years of losing to winning 13 games, the NFC West and the No. 2 seed in the conference. Harbaugh, who should be the unanimous choice for coach of the year, has his toughest job in front of him: convincing his team that they can hang with New Orleans.

It's not impossible -- San Francisco had their chance last year, Seattle capitalized on their opportunity, and the hapless Rams pulled if off this season -- just improbable.

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Posted on: January 3, 2012 12:03 pm
Edited on: January 3, 2012 1:11 pm
 

Jim Harbaugh wants Alex Smith back in 2012

Harbaugh is excited about bringing Smith back for another season. (Getty Images/US PRESSWIRE)

By Ryan Wilson

Jim Harbaugh said it over the summer and now, six months later, his story remains unchanged: he wants quarterback Alex Smith back in San Francisco next year. Smith's first six NFL seasons can kindly be described as tumultuous; a mix of ever-changing schemes and coordinators that resulting in inconsistent play and occasional benchings.

But under Harbaugh, Smith has flourished. The first-overall selection in the 2005 draft has benefitted from a quick-pass offense that relies heavily on the running game and a stingy defense. It worked so well that the 49ers went 13-3, won the NFC West going away, and now have a first-round bye.

On Monday, Harbaugh reiterated that Smith was his guy.

"I've told Alex that," Harbaugh said according to CSNBayArea.com's Matt Maiocco. "I wouldn't tell you (the media) something I wouldn't tell Alex.

"I told Alex, 'Hey, we're going to want you to come back here next year.' He's focused on the season, and that's where his mindset wants to be. And I totally respect that, and we'll talk about it and address it once the season is over. That's the way I understand it right now."

It's funny. Over the summer, Smith's NFL future was up in the air. The 49ers could've decided to move on, find a veteran quarterback to bridge the gap to 2011 second-round pick Colin Kaepernick, and turned the page on the Alex Smith era. Instead, Harbaugh kept Smith around, saved his career, and probably made him a lot of money in the process.

We wrote Monday that while the NFL might be a passing league but it's woefully short on passers. Smith isn't Joe Montana (or even Jeff Garcia) but in the right offense he's efficient and doesn't make mistakes. Based on the 2011 49ers, that can carry a team a long way.

And it's why Harbaugh wants Smith back in San Francisco for 2012. Beyond that, who knows. Which is why Smith might want to get while the getting's good, cash in on a lucrative long-term deal and play elsewhere next season. Then again, he owes Harbaugh for saving his career. Maybe loyalty is more important than money.

Either way, these are good problems to have. Usually this time of year we're talking about who should replace the current coach and/or quarterback. Instead the 49ers are preparing to host a playoff game for the first time since the 2002 season.

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Posted on: December 21, 2011 8:57 pm
 

Jim Harbaugh: Seahawks better on D than Steelers

It may seem like a stretch, but Seattle's defense has played as well if not better than Pittsburgh's. (Getty Images)

By Ryan Wilson

Jim Harbaugh isn't stingy with the compliments, even if they might seem preposterous. On Tuesday, a day after the 49ers handily defeated the Steelers, he said that not only is Alex Smith the team's quarterback of the future, he considers the former first-overall pick a Pro Bowler this season.

"There's other great players out there in the National Football (Conference)," Harbaugh said. "I believe there's three that go to the Pro Bowl, right? Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Alex Smith -- I think those are the top three, in the NFC in my humble opinion."

Pay no attention to Tony Romo, Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan or Eli Manning.

On Wednesday, Harbaugh was back at it, this time flattering the 49ers' next opponent: the Seattle Seahawks.

“We thought the Steelers were good on defense, preparing for them, and we think the Seahawks are even better,” he said according to CBSSports Rapid Reporter John Boyle.

On the surface, it's a ludicrous thing to say; Seattle is 7-7 and long shots to make the playoffs. Not only that, but they were blanked by the Steelers 24-0 in Week 2.

But here's the thing: Seattle may have looked like one of the NFL's worst teams through the first half of the season (they were 2-6 heading into Week 10), but they're 5-1 since November 13 and that includes convincing victories over the Ravens, Eagles and Bears. And while a resurgent Marshawn Lynch and an improved Tarvaris Jackson have something to do with the success, the defense that deserves most of the credit.

The unit's been so good, in fact, that Football Outsiders' advanced metrics ranks them ahead of the Steelers' defense. Through Week 15, Seattle is the NFL's ninth-best defense (ninth vs. the pass, 10th vs. the run), Pittsburgh is 10th (sixth vs. the pass, 13th vs. the run).

The Steelers' D has been more consistent over the course of the season, which makes sense given the Seahawks' slow start. Still, it's a startling revelation; we just assumed Harbaugh was laying it on thick in an effort to butter up the next opponent. Intended or otherwise, it turns out he was onto something. Maybe Pete Carroll really does have a plan

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Posted on: December 14, 2011 1:06 pm
 

Film Room: 49ers vs. Steelers preview

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit


At 10-3, the San Francisco 49ers are fighting for the No. 2 seed in the NFC. With two losses in their last three outings, questions are starting to lurk. Are the Niners indeed a top-tier club with a powerhouse defense and limited-but-fundamentally sound offense? Or are they, like the ’08 Dolphins or 08 Titans, just another middle-tier team that happened to rack up a lot of wins thanks to the good fortunes of turnover differential? (The Niners are currently first in the league at +21).

San Fran’s recent two losses have been to quality 3-4 defenses (Baltimore and Arizona). The Monday night matchup against Pittsburgh could provide the “moment of truth” for Jim Harbaugh’s club.


1. Niners’ protection woes
The Cardinals defense, led by former Steelers assistant Ray Horton, came after Alex Smith & Co. with fervidity and dimension. Horton’s panoply of blitzes brought rushers from all four linebacking spots and, on a few occasions, the secondary. San Francisco’s offensive line, particularly inside with LG Mike Iupati, C Jonathan Goodwin and RG Adam Snyder, floundered in their identification and reaction speed. Two weeks before, those three linemen, along with backup guard Chilo Rachal, were physically manhandled by Haloti Ngata and the tough Ravens front three.

The Niners spend most of their time in base offensive personnel, which has them line up against base defensive personnel. The Steelers are less aggressive than the Cardinals when it comes to blitzing out of base personnel (most of Dick LeBeau’s blitzes come from nickel and dime packages). And, physically, the Steelers defensive front three is not as powerful as the Ravens’.

That said, the trenches mismatch will still be glaring and hard for the Niners to avoid (see items 2 and 3).

2. Niners run game
Jim Harbaugh’s is a run-oriented offense in the purist form. On first and second downs, the 49ers align almost exclusively in 21 or 22 personnel (i.e. two backs and one or two tight ends). The Steelers, at times, even in their base defense with vociferous nose tackle Casey Hampton, have uncharacteristically struggled in run defense this season. But those struggles have come against zone-blocking teams like the Texans, Ravens or Bengals.

The 49ers are a power-blocking team. Their ground game is predicated on size and force, double-teams and interior pulls (Iupati is very mobile; Snyder is often ineffective off movement but can at least physically execute the plays). Power-blocking is not a good formula when facing the Steelers. Their defensive line cannot be consistently driven, and inside linebackers Lawrence Timmons and James Farrior play too fast for slow developing pull blocks to work.

3. Niners pass game
If the Niners do try to stick with their power ground game, they’ll inevitably face a handful of third-and-long situations. That will compel Harbaugh to spread into three-receiver sets. That’s when LeBeau will take advantage of San Francisco’s interior pass protection issues.

One of the hallmark blitzes in LeBeau’s portfolio is the Fire-X, which is when both inside linebackers crisscross and attack the A-gaps. The Steelers execute Fire-X’s better than any team in football. James Farrior is brilliant in timing his blitzes and setting up pass-rushing lanes for teammates. Lawrence Timmons is more explosive than Acetone Peroxide when firing downhill.

What’s more, Troy Polamalu’s versatility becomes more pronounced in passing situations. That’s problematic given how much trouble Adrian Wilson (a poor man’s Polamalu) gave the Niners last week.

Because rushing yards could be tough to come by, it’s very likely that the Niners will throw on early downs out of base personnel (they had success with this formula against the Giants a few weeks ago). To help Alex Smith thrive in these scenarios, Harbaugh has implemented several changes this season – such as using play-action and specific route designs that allow for one-read throws, eliminating sight adjustment routes to ensure that the receivers and quarterback are always on the same page and being very judicious in calling “shot plays” downfield.

But in most games, there are points when a quarterback and his receivers simply have to make things happen. Smith doesn’t have the dynamic tools to consistently do that against a D like Pittsburgh’s. His primary wide receivers don’t have the speed and quickness to regularly separate outside (especially against a star cornerback like Ike Taylor). And, most concerning, his offensive tackles, particularly lackluster second-year pro Anthony Davis, are not formidable enough in pass protection to stave off LaMarr Woodley or even Jason Worilds.

4. Niners defensive line vs. Steelers O-line
The good news for Harbaugh is his defense is capable of posing nearly just as many problems for the Steelers offense. Obviously, Ben Roethlisberger’s health will have a significant impact on this game. You already know the advantages Big Ben gives the Steelers.

Almost as important is the health of center Maurkice Pouncey. Like Roethlisberger, he’s battling a Grade 1 high ankle sprain. Pouncey could not finish the game against Cleveland but says he’ll play Monday night. That’s huge. Without Pouncey, the Steelers would have to slide Doug Legursky from left guard to center, which poses a substantial drop-off in mobility and strength (even if Legursky has been somewhat of an overachiever the last year).

What’s more, Chris Kemoeatu would be forced back into the lineup at left guard. Kemoeatu has been a top ten player at his position the past few years. But for whatever reason, he’s fallen flat on his face this season – mainly in pass protection, where he’s shown poor lateral agility and a proclivity for holding.

Even at full strength, the Steelers offensive line is average and, thus, incapable of completely neutralizing the 49ers front line over four quarters. Left end Justin Smith is as good as they get. Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga has blossomed into a plugger who’s mobile enough to make plays anywhere in the box.

Right end Ray McDonald is healthy again and flashing uncommon initial quickness. And on passing downs, Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith are lightning fast, supple edge-rushers with versatile short-area explosiveness. It’s highly doubtful the Steeler tackles can contain them one-on-one.

5. San Francisco’s defensive back seven
Even if Patrick Willis’ hamstring keeps him out a third-straight game, the Niners have enough speed and burst with NaVorro Bowman and strong safety Donte Whitner to answer Pittsburgh’s methodical rushing attack. The key will be whether San Francisco can hold up in pass defense. The Niners like to play zone in base D and man in nickel or dime.

Without Willis, San Francisco’s zones become somewhat vulnerable inside (we saw this on Early Doucet’s 60-yard touchdown last week). In man, Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver are all capable of hanging with Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Mike Wallace, but not if Roethlisberger is able to extend the play (Brown is simply too good at making late adjustments to his route, Sanders is similar and Wallace obviously has lethal speed if he can get downfield).

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Week 15 games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
 
 
 
 
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com