SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Two quarterbacks. Two game plans.
Although it's a foregone conclusion that Troy Smith will start at quarterback Sunday for the San Francisco 49ers, offensive coordinator Mike Johnson said the team's game plan will change to best use his skills, which are different from those of Alex Smith.
"They're two different types of quarterback, and they require two different types of thought," Johnson said Thursday. "We have to put together a game plan and utilize some of those skills that Troy Smith has and make sure that we can still throw the ball vertical and still run the ball effectively. That's what a big part of our week was during the bye week, and that was why Troy wasn't here, because we had to decide as a coaching staff what does he do well and how do we utilize his strengths against the St. Louis Rams and going against their blitz scheme this week."
It's still not official, but Troy Smith continues to be the likely starting quarterback against the Rams in a game that will clearly determine the 49ers' direction. At 2-6, they're still just two games behind the 4-4 Rams and the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West, and they have five division games remaining.
But winning on Sunday – and continuing to win every week – are essential. A loss would bury their hopes.
"We've got eight games to go to do what we set out to do," said defensive tackle Justin Smith, who will be making his 148th consecutive start. "Every game is important, and the most important one is this week. We lose this one and it's not good. We have to win this game."
A lot will depend on how far Troy Smith has progressed since helping the 49ers to a 24-16 victory over the Denver Broncos, their second win in three games. Smith, who was making his first start since 2007, completed 12 of 19 passes for 196 yards and no interceptions. He used his feet to buy extra time to find receivers.
"I give him a plus for game one because we won, and that's how we evaluate the quarterbacks here," Johnson said. "If we win the game, then you played well enough to win. It's not about numbers, it's not about how many yards we run for or throw for. If we get the W, then I think they've done enough to be effective."
Johnson was asked if a 38-yard pass from Troy Smith to tight end Delanie Walker, which he squeezed into Denver's double coverage, was ill-advised.
"Well, it's not ill-advised if he catches it," he said.
TAKE A BREAK: Rookie safety Taylor Mays didn't sound bothered by the news he'll be sharing snaps with Reggie Smith, at least for the foreseeable future. Coach Mike Singletary said the move was made to give Mays a break on defense because he still plays on special teams.
"It's just kind of hard to run down the field sometimes and then go on defense," Mays said. "It's just been hard for me to be out there, especially late in the game. But it's not really a big deal. I know what it is. Coaches know what it is. There's a circle of us, me and coach Sing, and we know what it is. So it really isn't anything I'm worried about. If I'm tired, that's just how it is."
What's the cryptic comment all about? Mays, who became a starter Oct. 3 after Michael Lewis was granted his release rather than accept a reduced role, has struggled on occasion along with the rest of the secondary. Mays is a big hitter, but his ball skills were questioned coming out of USC, and he's given up a few too many passes over the top.
"You've got to make plays on the ball," defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said, speaking of Mays. "I don't care what position you're at. … For him, there's times he's going to go through some growing pains, as most rookies (do) in the National Football League. The more and more that the kid sees it, the more and more that he plays, the better off he's going to be."