Offense can't operate with Smith under siege
Smith has been under siege as of late, just as he was early in the season when he was sacked 14 times in a three-game span during Weeks 2-4.
Smith's protection improved drastically after that – he was sacked just seven times in the next six games – but since then opponents have figured out the best way to disrupt an inconsistent San Francisco offense that ranks just 26th in the NFL.
And that is to put the heat on Smith with a variety of pressure schemes and blitz packages.
That defensive pressure was a key factor in rendering San Francisco's offense lifeless in the second half last week during the Niners' 21-19 loss at Arizona, when Smith was hit nine times and sacked on five other occasions, raising Smith's sack total in the past three games to 18.
It's no coincidence the 49ers are 1-2 in those games after a 9-1 start during which a poised Smith established himself among the league's top quarterbacks in passing efficiency.
Smith has dropped to ninth in the NFL this week with a passer rating of 91.5, his lowest standing among the league leaders since September. Two of his lowest passer ratings of the season have come the past three weeks in losses to the Cardinals and Baltimore Ravens.
It's difficult for Smith to make things happen when he is constantly being hit and chased by defenders. But it hasn't been difficult for him to stay healthy. Smith, who has missed time before in his career with several significant injuries, has not missed one significant snap this season due to injury.
Both Smith and the 49ers should feel fortunate about that, because Smith has been sacked 39 times, a NFL high. And the word is out about how to get to Smith and, as a result, stop the Niners on offense.
Both the Cardinals and Ravens play a defensive scheme that originated in Pittsburgh. And that's not good news for the 49ers, who meet the Steelers on Monday night in a showdown between 10-3 teams that holds plenty of significance for both teams.
That's particularly true for the 49ers, who may need to win their final three games to hold off the New Orleans Saints for the No. 2 playoff seed in the NFC and the bye week that comes with it.
The 49ers right now are more concerned with holding off onrushing defenders. With the Steelers coming to town, the Niners will need to shore up their protection against Pittsburgh's vaunted 3-4 scheme that uses a variety of blitz packages.
"I think the biggest question is, can San Francisco protect him?" said Jon Gruden, the former Super Bowl-winning coach who now serves as an ESPN analyst. Gruden will call Monday's 49ers/Steelers clash along with fellow analyst Ron Jaworski and play-by-play man Mike Tirico.
"We made the point the other night in Seattle that the quarterbacks in the NFC West statistically and on film have been under siege," Gruden continued. "(Smith)'s been sacked one out of just about 11 drop-back passes. He still is under, to me, a lot of duress. He's had to create… The big question to me is can they keep him in rhythm and protect him and give him an opportunity to stride through throws and do what he can do physically."
Gruden believes that the 49ers are particularly susceptible to complex blitz schemes because they have two second-year players along their starting line in right tackle Anthony Davis and left guard Mike Iupati. San Francisco also has a new center in veteran Jonathan Goodwin.
"That's the big objective to me for the 49ers, particularly against the Steelers," Gruden said. "I have to assume that (Steelers defensive coordinator) Dick LeBeau is drawing up multiple overload blitz schemes to test this young 49ers offensive line. I think the lockout really impacted offensive line play, that cohesiveness, that communication, and those contingency plans you need to come up with on a weekly basis has really hurt some teams. I think the 49ers fall into that category because of their youth."
Both Gruden and Jaworski, a former star NFL quarterback, believe the Ravens and Cardinals established a blueprint on how to pressure Smith and thwart the 49ers offensively. It's based on overload blitzes and bringing linebackers and defensive backs at times. The 49ers particularly struggled against those two teams in protecting the inside gaps.
With rushers in Smith's face, he had few avenues of escape and few options for unloading the football. Jaworski pointed out that Cardinals first-year defensive coordinator Ray Horton coached with Pittsburgh before joining Arizona and that the Steelers would certainly follow a blueprint that fits right in with what they want to do defensively.
"We will learn how much the 49ers learned last week," Jaworski said. "Because it's the same style of defense they are going to see. They got guys clean at the quarterback with only four-man rushes."
Jaworski was an outspoken critic of Smith and his mechanics earlier in his career, and he didn't back off those comments when discussing San Francisco's seventh-year veteran earlier this week.
"He really hasn't made a whole lot of improvement in his mechanics," Jaworski said. "You may remember a few years ago, I broke down his locked left leg, and I still think that knee locked does cause him some problems with his accuracy. But it's something that he's comfortable with, it's unique to his passes. I've kind of let it go at that. It's not something that I like to see. I think it's a detriment to quarterbacks when they don't have that flexed knee and a cushion."
That said, Jaworski gave credit to Smith for his development and taking the 49ers to their first NFC West championship and playoff berth since 2002.
"Alex has played well, and I think more importantly, the fact that he understands what his role is right now, he is the quarterback, he understands this system right now," Jaworski said. "He's not asked to drop back 40 times and win the game for the 49ers. They want to play smashmouth football, and they will take their shots, and I think this is where Alex has been very good. They run the football, they'll go to the play-action game, and he'll take his shots, and I think it's a good fit for where he is in his career right now, this style of offense."
Jaworski went on: "I applaud the way he's playing right now. He can make every throw. Alex, because he's experienced now, he's improved his anticipation, his understanding of this offense, he knows the scheme, he knows what's expected, and he knows his own limitations. I think that's always a great asset for a quarterback, to know what you can't do rather than what you can do. He's very careful with the football and not making a whole lot of mistakes. I'd like to see the ball come out a little bit quicker. I think there are times he's taking sacks because he's not releasing the football, but other than that, I applaud the way he's playing."
As Jaworski noted, despite his improvement and the winning play that's come with it, Smith's slow release remains a liability. Smith will have a man open for an instant, but he won't throw it, because he realizes the window will close by the time he unleashes his pass.
That's not all on Smith. His array of capable receiving targets has become an issue over the past month.
In the last four games, Smith has gotten practically no production out of wide receiver Braylon Edwards and tight end Delanie Walker. Smith has thrown 18 passes to those two targets during that span, but those passes produced just one reception for five yards.
The 49ers need more production from those two to get their offense in general and passing game in particular back on track.
But more than anything, they need to keep Smith upright. He's getting hit too often, and that punishment adds up. The last thing the 49ers need as they approach the playoffs is a hurting quarterback. Or, even worse, playing a rookie backup quarterback – which is what the Niners would be putting on the field if Smith couldn't play because of injury.
If you think the offense is having trouble operating now with Smith, just think what it would be like then without him.
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