Patchwork protection for Alex's debut?

There's this one not-so-minor detail that's difficult to overlook as the 49ers prepare to send prized rookie Alex Smith out to start his first professional game Saturday during the team's preseason opener against the Oakland Raiders: Four of San Francisco's projected starters along the offensive line won't be on the field in front of Smith because of injuries. And that raises some serious questions about how the Niners plan to protect their $50 million quarterback during his first time out.

Smith, as is his carefree style regarding things beyond his control, downplays the issue.

"I'm the No. 1 pick in the draft on the opposing side," Smith said after learning Wednesday morning he'd be the starter. "I'm sure I'll present a nice target for them. But I didn't expect it any way else. The quarterback is always a target. And you know what? That's why we have pads on. I should be all right."

That certainly is open to debate.

Perhaps it would have been wiser to send veteran Tim Rattay – or even Ken Dorsey, for that matter – out with the first team Saturday, because San Francisco will be starting two rookies and an unproven second-year backup along the offensive line.

With the Bay Area bragging rights rivalry always adding a little something extra to this preseason opener, the Raiders' first-string defense will be coming after the quarterback with intent to injure. Is this really the kind of situation the 49ers want Smith to step into during the first game of his career?

And we're not talking here that Smith might be overmatched because he won't have better and more experienced linemen in front of him, thus risking a stinky start that could affect his confidence and development.

We're talking here that those linemen might not be able to keep him safe, thus unnecessarily risking early injury to the team's young potential savior.

They are legitimate issues to consider, but coach Mike Nolan doesn't seem too concerned.

"I don't have concerns," Nolan responded when SFI asked the question Wednesday. "I really don't. I mean, I've got things that I'm watching all the time. This line, some of these guys are going to play for us during the season. So it's an important time for them to see what they do."

But at the risk of putting Smith in an almost impossible situation? Or, more specifically, a dangerous situation as compared to if he came in later in the game against second-team players?

The facts are that Patrick Estes, a college tight end who has been playing tackle all of three months, will be protecting Smith's blind side at left tackle. Regular left tackle Jonas Jennings is officially out, so the burden falls to Estes, a seventh-round draft pick who – let's face it – isn't ready for the job.

"Pass protection is a whole different world," Estes said. "Tight ends don't do as much of it. It's going to take a lot of work to become better at that and understand it. I just have to make sure I know my assignments and block my man so he doesn't get to the quarterback."

Sounds simple. But it isn't. And everybody knows it, particularly Oakland defenders who will try to take advantage of Estes so they can take advantage of Smith with open shots on the quarterback.

Next to Estes, the Niners likely will start untested Scott Peters in place of Justin Smiley, who has a calf contusion and also is likely to sit this one out. Peters has as much to prove as Estes or any other young lineman on the San Francisco roster, and he'll be doing it against front-line defenders.

Even center Eric Heitmann – the team's starting left guard the past three seasons – will be starting at a position at which he still is getting comfortable. The Niners can feel good about Heitmann's experience and ability to protect Smith, but he, too, is learning and still getting comfortable at a new position.

To Heitmann's right, rookie Adam Snyder – the team's third-round draft pick – will get the start, and he was supposed to spend this season as the team's top backup tackle. At least Snyder has had a whole training camp to get used to the starting unit and a new position after projected starter David Baas went down with a hamstring injury. That same can't be said for Estes or Peters.

So, when Smith does go back to pass, expect to see a few rollouts to the right side, where tackle Kwame Harris is the only regular starter along the line who will be around for San Francisco's opening offensive snap.

And that's how Nolan plans to protect Smith – with an offensive game plan that will take the personnel in front of Smith and around him into consideration.

"The way we structure our offense, the way (offensive coordinator) Mike McCarthy structures the play-calling and things like that, that's always a part of the game plan," Nolan said. "If you were in the (regular) season and had the line looking like this, we'd do the same thing to some degree. You know – when you run, when you pass, what types of runs, what kind of protections you use. That's all part of game planning.

"We're not going to get overly cautious, but at the same time, you don't come out of there wide open, empty (backfield) on the first play, and get your guy killed. That's not going to be our philosophy any. All those things come into play when you're deciding how to play the game. Now that we've decided who the guys (are), now it's how do we play the game with those guys?"

Here's the obvious answer, as far as protecting Smith is concerned: Very carefully.


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