49ers replay: Slumping Smith must step it up

When the 49ers' ground game is stalled, the team needs to find other players to pick up the slack for RB Frank Gore. QB Alex Smith hasn't yet put a game on his shoulders and carried the club to victory, something coach Mike Nolan wanted to see in Sunday's loss to the Saints. And Smith will have to raise the level of his game if the 49ers have any hopes of making a run at the .500 mark this season.

Next up for the 49ers are the Packers. No opposing coach knows Smith's strengths and weaknesses as well as Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who served as the 49ers' offensive coordinator last season in Smith's rookie year.

The formula to give the 49ers fits is to load up to stop Gore, who has gained 1,217 yards on 223 carries this season.

Gore had rushed for 505 yards in San Francisco's three previous games - the most ever by a player over a three-game stretch in the 61-year history of the franchise - but he was limited to a season-low 40 yards on 13 carries Sunday by a New Orleans defense that aggressively geared their defensive front to stop him.

"They lined up with an eight-man front and did what everyone had done so far this year," Nolan said of the Saints' defensive philosophy that contributed to New Orleans taking control in the second half on the way to a convincing 34-10 victory. "We need to do a better job when people do that, of attacking down the field."

Smith has not thrown for more than 171 yards in his past six games, as the 49ers have put all of their trust in the ground game and defense. Against the Saints, Smith completed 14 of 28 passes for 171 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. Though it was his most yards passing in a game since the middle of October, it qualified as arguably his worst game of the season.

Smith is in the midst of a two-game slump in which he has completed 27 of 53 passes for 319 yards with two touchdown passes and five interceptions, producing passer ratings of 50.1 and 41.5 in the two games.

What's worse is that Smith had plenty of opportunities to make plays down the field against the Saints, but he regularly missed the target when trying to find open receivers.

"I'm thinking about the handful of shots I'd like to have back, balls that I'd like to have back that if we get them, this game's a lot different," Smith said.

When asked to evaluate Smith's game, Nolan said tersely, "I thought we didn't take advantage of our opportunities to make some plays. We have to make those plays."

The frustration began on the first play of the game, when receiver Antonio Bryant appeared to have a couple steps on a defender. But Smith did not see him in time and eventually threw a pass that was too high for tight end Delanie Walker and too low for Bryant.

"The opportunity was there, we just got to connect," Bryant said. "It was early and maybe he wasn't warmed up."

Smith and Bryant collaborated on a 48-yard scoring pass for San Francisco's only touchdown, a play that brought the 49ers within 14-10 early in the third quarter. But there were several other times Bryant slipped free of defenders and Smith was unable to get the ball to him.

The 49ers (5-7) have relied heavily on Gore during a stretch that saw them win three in a row and get into the fringe of the NFC playoff hunt. Even in a 20-17 loss to the St. Louis Rams last week, Gore rushed for 134 yards.

"Frank's done a great job of making the eighth guy miss and breaking some long runs," Smith said. "He's not always going to be able to do that for us. And some of the rest of us have to step up and make plays and help this offense out."

Smith in particular.

--- WR Antonio Bryant had his most yards receiving at New Orleans since posting back-to-back 100-yard games to open the season. Bryant had 79 yards on four receptions against the Saints.
--- T Adam Snyder is expected to miss at least one game with a high right ankle sprain. Snyder had been splitting time at RT with starter Kwame Harris and is considered the team's top backup along the offensive line.
--- TE Eric Johnson is expected to miss 2-3 weeks with a left knee sprain that occurred during practice last week. Johnson did not suit up for Sunday's game against the Saints.
--- LB Hannibal Navies - who didn't join the team until last week - made his first start for the 49ers, who employed a 3-4 defense to open the game Sunday against the Saints. The 49ers have been primarily a 4-3 defensive team this season. Navies was third on the team with six tackles, the most of any San Francisco linebacker or defensive lineman.
--- LB Derek Smith, the team's leading tackler, was listed as doubtful for next week's game against the Packers on the preliminary injury report. Smith has a left hamstring strain.

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