Smith on spot as opponents plot to stop Gore

Quarterback Alex Smith has been steady most of the season. In recent weeks, as the 49ers have compiled a three-game win streak, he has mostly taken a backseat to running back Frank Gore and the defense. But that may have to change, as opposing defenses plot ways to slow down the 49ers' rushing attack.

There might be a time soon when 49ers offensive coordinator Norv Turner asks Smith to step out of his role as a "game manager" to start creating more plays. Gore is second in the NFL with 1,043 yards rushing this season, and opponents are expected to place more emphasis on slowing down the 49ers' ground game.

"With what we've done in the run game the last couple weeks, I'd be shocked if that wasn't any defense's priority against us right now," Smith said. "And that makes it nice on the outside. We should see a lot of single-safety and one-on-one opportunities in the passing game. We can't ask for more than that."

In the past three games, Smith has clearly outplayed the Vikings' Brad Johnson, the Lions' Jon Kitna and the Seahawks' Seneca Wallace. Smith has thrown one interception and lost one fumble in those games, the opposing quarterbacks have thrown five interceptions and lost three fumbles.

Last Sunday, in the 49ers' 20-14 victory over the Seahawks, Smith completed 19 of 25 passes for 163 yards. He also rushed for his first NFL touchdown.

"The last few weeks, as far as handling the situations, (we were) much more efficient in the passing game," Smith said. "It's the little things, like not forcing things and making smart decisions in the passing game."

Part of being smart with the football is not forcing anything on third downs, Smith said. He completed seven of 10 third-down passes but only two picked up enough yardage for a first down. One was a 9-yard scoring pass to Arnaz Battle and the other was a swing pass to Gore that picked up 16 yards and a first down. All the other completions were on the final plays of drives.

"There's a fine line," Smith said. "Early on, you want to take what's given and do the little things. There comes a breaking point in the game, when you might want to force something and make something happen. But with our defense, the way they're playing, you go ahead and play the field-position game instead of taking unnecessary risks."

Smith compiled a passer rating of 105.9 against the Seahawks, the second-best of his career, and now has seven games this season in which his rating has been 84.8 or better. After a recent slide, Smith is back among the league's top 15 quarterbacks with a season passer rating of 82.7.

Coach Mike Nolan has said he doesn't expect Smith to truly come into his own as a NFL quarterback until several years down the road. But that doesn't mean he can't reach excellence while he's getting there.

"I wouldn't say I've arrived, but what's happening is that I'm getting more and more comfortable," Smith said. "I have grown a lot."

And when the quarterback grows, that progress can be felt throughout the team. And when the team grows, the struggling 49ers of October suddenly have become the contending 49ers of November.

"That's the way it is in this league," Smith said. "You win one and the next one is even bigger. This is a big week."

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