Smith leading victories while learning on job

Quarterback Alex Smith admitted after Sunday's game that he played "average." But after 49ers coach Mike Nolan watched the film, he felt a lot better about the way his second-year signal-caller fared in the 19-13 victory over the Lions.

"Alex Smith had a really good game," Nolan said. "He continued to get first downs, moved the ball, and made some plays, whether it was shoving the ball out there or running for a first down. He avoided two or three blitzes in the game and got the ball checked down."

Smith completed 14 of 20 passes for 136 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions. But he still made some mistakes that can be attributed to his youth.

On a second-and-2 play from the Lions' 12 in the first quarter, Smith passed up open tight end Eric Johnson to take a shot in the end zone to wideout Arnaz Battle. But Battle was out of bounds. The 49ers did not get the first down and settled for a short Joe Nedney field goal.

"He could have dinked him the ball and gotten the first down," Nolan said. "Instead, he tried to hit Arnaz Battle in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown. There were a few plays like that and I said to him, 'I want to remind you of something - it's not your job to win the game. It's your job to manage the game so that we can win it. I don't know if that's where you're at right now, but I want you to understand it.'"

Then, in the fourth quarter, Smith made a questionable decision because he became too cautious.

"Now what happened is a few series later, he had somebody down the field and he dinks it to the tight end right in front of him, who gets flipped in the air for about a 2-yard gain," Nolan said. "I thought, 'I just need to shut up and let him play.' I think that is the case for him."

The 49ers certainly did not take advantage of all their opportunities Sunday. After turnovers they took over at the Lions' 32, the Lions' 26 and the 49ers' 49. But they managed only six points out of that great field position.

"It could've been a lot of worse; we left a lot of points on the field," Smith said. "It could've been 21 instead of six. We still have a long way to go."

It's that attitude that Smith has that helps Nolan believe that he will continue to strive to get better throughout his career.

Smith will make his 17th career start Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks, and it could be one of his biggest so far. The 49ers can get within a game of first-place Seattle in the NFC West and jump into the thick of the playoff chase with a victory.

Smith was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft last year. Nolan was asked if he believes Smith will "arrive" in his third season.

"I don't know if it'll be the third year," Nolan said. "I'll say this, I hope Alex doesn't arrive in his third year, because I hope Alex arrives in year 12 or 13. What I mean by that is that along the way, every year, he thinks he might have (arrived), but he just keeps getting better. One of the things I talked about when we took him is that that's the kind of guy he is. He's got great work ethic.

"I'd like to think that he would get better each and every year, because he does the things that it takes to get better. Alex's personality is not one of 'Hey, I've arrived!' or "Boy, wasn't that a great game? Aren't I great?' That's not Alex. Alex was very critical of himself (Sunday night). He was talking about the game and he said, 'I missed some plays.' Yeah, he missed some plays, but he also took his team to a victory."

And that's the bottom line. Smith learns from his mistakes and usually doesn't repeat them, and he also is getting down the finer details of managing a game.

He also has the 49ers on their second two-game winning streak since he returned to the starting lineup from a knee injury with five games remaining last season. Smith now is 6-5 in his last 11 NFL starts after going 0-5 in his first five career starts.

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