49ers vs. Saints: What we learned

Five things we learned about the 49ers during their 24-3 loss to New Orleans in Friday's exhibition opener, touching upon these subjects: The same old Alex Smith; calling all available veteran QBs; an O-line shakeup; an upgrade at OLB; and a front seven that's still nails on defense after losing three starters from last season.

Meet the new Alex, same as the old Alex

He was blitzed relentlessly and had little time to throw, but on five possessions the 2011 version of Alex Smith didn't look much like an improvement on previous versions, as the veteran QB finished 2 of 7 passing for 10 yards with a passer rating of 39.6 while being sacked twice and hit several other times he tried to throw. Even in a preseason game, opposing defenses have no respect for Smith that he can beat them, so they leave the middle open and bring the house. Smith has to make them pay or this pattern will be repeated often once the real games begin, as it has been in the past. Even when Smith did have time to throw, he seldom was on target, throwing low and behind open tight end Vernon Davis on the first play of the game. It never got much better from there for Smith or the 49ers. There has been positive change in Smith's demeanor and leadership qualities since last season, but it's not going to mean anything unless there is a change in his game, and if the small sample of Friday's outing is to tell us anything, Smith's game still needs to change if it's to become an improvement over the same old stuff.

The Niners need to re-visit bringing in a veteran QB

The 49ers have gotten by, perhaps carelessly, with just Smith, Colin Kaepernick and two other undrafted rookies at quarterback so far during training camp. There's nothing wrong with that in early August as it gave the team a chance to study and get comfortable with its top two QBs while also giving those two a lot of work in the system. But now it's almost the middle of August, and the 49ers have a season opener to get ready for in less than a month. At this point, Kaepernick is clearly more project than polished product, and the 49ers would not be wise to put it all on their promising rookie to be their No. 2 QB entering the season. If Smith and Kaepernick were to play relatively the same the rest of the preseason as they did Friday, Smith would go into the season as the starter by default. The 49ers need a veteran with previous starting experience to both challenge Kaepernick for the No. 2 role and push Smith to get better in the No. 1 role. In fact, you could have said that before training camp even began. On his day-after conference call Saturday afternoon, when asked if the team is now considering bringing in another QB, Harbaugh admitted, "That's a possibility." When asked what it would take for that possibility to become reality, he responded, "The right person available."

The offensive line needs a shakeup

OK, so the 49ers weren't prepared for the unusual exhibition-opening circumstance of the Saints defense going code red on them and repeatedly bringing seven-man blitzes. That said, the Niners are fooling themselves if they think this young line – which showed some real potential in spots last year – is getting any better as it's currently configured. There's no problem on the left side with Joe Staley and Mike Iupati – even though they also need to get better after Friday's showing – but the three positions to their right all need to pick it up or else the team is going to sputter again offensively, because it all starts up front. Adam Snyder almost certainly will be out soon in favor of newcomer Jonathan Goodwin at center, and that could be a good start. But Chilo Rachal is not cutting it at right guard, and unless he gets it together soon, the 49ers should consider Snyder there, or even the possibility of moving Anthony Davis over from right tackle, which could give Alex Boone a shot at a front-line role there. The 49ers say their best five offensive linemen will start, but one thing is certain: Their best five weren't starting Friday. And since it takes time for a line to build cohesion as a group, if a shakeup is coming, it better come soon.

The Niners have finally upgraded at OLB

Whether it's Ahmad Brooks playing there or rookie Aldon Smith, the 49ers are going to be better at the strong-side edge position in their 3-4 defensive scheme than they were during the past three years with Manny Lawson playing there. The 49ers need an aggressive, strong pass-rushing force at the position, and both Brooks and Smith look like the ticket in the role. Smith will only get better after his impressive pro debut, and Brooks is showing some real all-around power and skill as he settles in on the edge after playing most of his football life at inside linebacker. Even newcomer Antwan Applewhite looks like he could be a factor here, which should put even more heat on holdover Parys Haralson to pick it up and produce or risk losing his starting job.

The defensive front seven will still be nails

The 49ers lost 2010 16-game starters Lawson, Aubrayo Franklin and Takeo Spikes from the equation, and that was some cause for worry. But even without new nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga – another 16-game starter last year at left end – San Francisco's front seven gave the appearance of being just as imposing this season, if not more so, particularly against the run. The 49ers were sixth in the NFL last year in rushing defense, and they could be even stronger this year with Brooks replacing Lawson and NaVorro Bowman replacing Spikes. Ray McDonald looked like a load Friday as the new starter at left end, and when Sopoaga returns, he will capture more attention in the middle than the undersized Ricky Jean Francois. Bowman, Patrick Willis and right end Justin Smith were animals during their brief stints in the game Friday, and they had a lot to do with the Saints gaining just 17 yards and no first downs with their Drew Brees-led first-unit offense on the field.


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