Niner of the Week

Quarterback Alex Smith is SFI's NOTW for his performance during the 49ers' 38-24 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Sunday standout: Smith set new career highs in three major passing categories against the Eagles, completing 27 of 46 passes for 293 yards to better his previous career bests (23 of 40 for 288 yards) set in the Sept. 10 season opener against Arizona. Smith was at his best in the second half while attempting to rally the 49ers back from a huge deficit in the face of a Philadelphia defense that came after him relentlessly as the game progressed and the 49ers were forced to throw. The second-year veteran competed 18 of 28 passes for 226 yards after halftime, when he led the 49ers on three touchdown drives and guided another drive that was stopped at the Philadelphia 1-yard line. Smith had a career-long completion of 75 yards to receiver Bryan Gilmore that set up San Francisco's first touchdown in the third quarter, then connected on five consecutive passes on the 49ers' final offensive drive before spiking the ball before the two-minute warning. Smith then completed three of four passes (not counting another spike to stop the clock) before firing over the middle to hit tight end Eric Johnson for a 15-yard touchdown pass with six seconds to play, completing a 21-7 run by the 49ers to finish the game. Smith had a 49-yard completion to Antonio Bryant earlier in the fourth quarter nullified by a penalty. Smith also carried six times for a career-high 39 yards rushing, including a 22-yard burst up the middle on a third-and-11 play to give the 49ers their first first down of the game early in the second quarter. That was the longest run of Smith's young career, and it - along with a 20-yard pass from Smith to Bryant - extended a drive that led to San Francisco's first points of the afternoon. Smith also held up well to the pounding he took from the Eagles, who hit him at least 15 times in the pocket. But he always got up to take more, all the way to the game's final seconds.

Season to date: Smith ranks sixth in the NFL with 814 yards passing and he's the league's 10th-rated quarterback with a season passer rating of 89.8. Smith ranks fifth in the NFC with an average of 7.54 yards per pass attempt - he's averaging 13.3 yards per completion - and he has long pass plays already this year of 75 yards to Gilmore, 72 to Bryant, 56 to Arnaz Battle, two of 46 to Bryant, 39 to running back Frank Gore, 34 to Bryant and 31 to tight end Vernon Davis. Smith's 288 yards passing against Arizona was the fourth-highest total ever by a San Francisco quarterback in the team's season opener. With 38 yards rushing on nine carries, Smith also is the team's second-leading rusher behind Gore. After throwing 11 interceptions in 165 pass attempts as a rookie last year, Smith has yet to throw an interception in 108 attempts this season. He also has been sacked only four times - three of them coming in the fourth quarter against the Eagles after the game had gotten out of hand.

Need to note: Smith has a streak of 132 consecutive pass attempts without an interception dating back to last season, and he needs to go 23 more passes without a pick to pass Joe Montana for the second-longest streak in team history. Steve Young holds the team record with 183 passes without an interception during the 1993 season. Smith's 46 passes without an interception against the Eagles ranks fourth in team history behind Tim Rattay (57 attempts with no interceptions vs. Arizona in 2004), Joe Montana (57 attempts with no interceptions vs. Atlanta in 1985) and Young (51 attempts with no interceptions vs. Indianapolis in 1998). Through three 2006 games, Smith has added 49 points to his final passer rating of 2005 (40.8), and he's just 61 yards away from reaching his rookie season total of 875 passing yards.

Smith says: "I really want to get into the decision-making process, be smart with the ball and don't take chances with the throws I'm making. There were times last year when I was guessing too much and playing it too fast before the snap - you know, ‘This guy should be open' - instead of just playing the play and reacting to things. There's just something about coming in and actually playing and reacting to things, and knowing when I can actually take off and (run). When you are playing like that and you're confident in it, you're actually out there playing. There were times last year when you're always kind of doubting yourself in a sense. Now that I'm out there actually playing and reacting, you can really kind of go full bore. You're not thinking about anything. You're just going and playing."

Coach Mike Nolan says: "We've got a tough quarterback. I don't know if there are too many guys in the league who could take that kind of a beating and keep coming back. That's impressive to me. Did he play a clean game? No. But he played a good game. I think that the toughness he showed throughout the game kind of tells you what kind of guy he is going to be. That's very important. The quarterback needs to be a tough-minded guy. If you've got a quarterback that's whining all the time when he gets hit, or he's whining because he doesn't get the call, or if he just shows it with bad body language, that's not what you want to look like. Alex, as we knew when we drafted him and have said all along, has the things that, with maturity, will come out more and more. That's all aside from the fact that he's performing well, too. He is standing in there, keeping his eyes down the field and doing the things you expect a confident quarterback to do."

Looking ahead: Smith has shown considerable improvement over his rookie season so far in 2006, and look for that trend to continue as the season progresses and he gets more comfortable and confident in the offense and the players around him. With San Francisco currently ranked No. 4 in the NFL in total offense and No. 25 in total defense, Smith figures to get a lot of opportunities to go to the air if the 49ers continue to get into shootouts and/or need to play catch-up. With rookie Vernon Davis out for at least a month with a broken leg, Johnson will become the team's top tight end target, and that might actually make it better for Smith because Johnson is a more polished receiver at the position. If the 49ers can continue to mount an effective rushing attack to complement Smith's passing, he figures to have many more productive days on the horizon this season. Smith currently is on a pace to pass for 4,341 yards this season, which would break Jeff Garcia's franchise record of 4,278 passing yards in 2000.

ALSO CONSIDERED: TE Eric Johnson (game-high seven receptions, 87 yards receiving, 15-yard touchdown catch).

2006 NOTW LIST: Week 1: RB Frank Gore. Week 2: WR Antonio Bryant. Week 3: QB Alex Smith.

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