Offense takes over early in exhibition opener

Those who tuned in late to Monday's preseason opener might have missed it, but Alex Smith and the 49ers' first-team offense scooted right down the field on its only two possessions of the night, scoring on both, and that was with Frank Gore on the sidelines. A year older, wiser and better, the third-year QB looks ready to take the next step and carry San Francisco's offense right along with him.

Though Gore will be back from his broken hand in plenty of time for the start of the regular season, it was encouraging to see how Smith took command of the offense without him. In just 13 plays of action before taking the rest of the night off, Smith guided the 49ers on drives of 42 and 55 yards against Denver's first-teamers to account for 10 of San Francisco's points in a 17-13 loss to the Broncos at Monster Park.

The final score was insignificant, but what the 49ers starting offense did while mauling a good starting Denver defense was not. And it all began with Smith, who looks more and more like a quarterback who can take the 49ers where they want to go.

"I felt a lot more comfortable than I have ever played," Smith said. "Knowing what is happening and reading defenses, creating a good rhythm, everything slowing down out there … I felt really comfortable about that."

Smith completed 4 of his 5 passes for 58 yards before taking the night off, and both of his deep throws were beauties. He squeezed in a perfect pass to tightly-covered Darrell Jackson for an 18-yard gain on San Francisco's first possession, then set up the 49ers' only touchdown with a 26-yard rope to Arnaz Battle, who caught the ball between three defenders at the 1-yard line.

Smith also kept the offense moving crisply, and the only time the 49ers were stopped with him in the game was when Smith was forced to get rid of the ball early on a third-and-9 play from the Denver 20 when his backside protection broke down early.

"Alex played real well and led our offense," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "He had a good command and that first offense looked real good. He did a great job on the throw to Arnaz. He will continue to get better and better. He works hard in practice and meetings, and good things happen to those types of players."

Good things were happening throughout the first-team offense, and it all started up front, where San Francisco dominated outside of two breakdowns in pass protection.

On the 49ers' first offensive play, left tackle Jonas Jennings and left guard Larry Allen blew open a hole in the Denver line and Maurice Hicks – starting in place of Gore – burst through it for an 8-yard gain before Denver defenders met him at the second level.

Hicks turned a screen pass into a 9-yard gain and first down on the next play, and when San Francisco got the ball back later in the quarter, he accelerated through a hole on the right side for a 20-yard gain to take the 49ers into Denver territory. It was Hicks' final carry on a day he averaged 10 yards on his three attempts.

"It's great to have those big guys up there working, those cows," Hicks said. "It's always good to have a great offensive line and I feel we have a great one. I just know when coaches call my name and it's time for me to step in, I'm going to take care of business."

Hicks has taken the lead in the battle to be Gore's backup this season, which figures to be a key role as the team attempts to protect its Pro Bowl star and keep him fresh. But Hicks' competition – Michael Robinson and rookie Thomas Clayton – also performed well.

Robinson showed both power and elusiveness while gaining 25 yards on his six carries, including a 1-yard plunge into the end zone to complete San Franciso's second drive. Clayton led all rushers with 55 yards on 17 carries, but when he was running behind the first- and second-unit offensive lines during the first half, he had 29 yards on six carries, a 4.8 average.

"It's unfortunate Frankie's down, but me Mike and the other guys have to step up," Hicks said. "I feel like any of us can get in any time and take care of business. When Frankie's healthy, we're going to have a duel."

There has been a lot of duels going on during training camp at several offensive positions, and that seems to be only making the unit as a whole stronger. There's no duel going on at quarterback, but it appears Smith is pushing himself as much as anybody else could push him.

"Alex is doing great," Hicks said. "With me being able to run the ball, it just helps out. We were moving the ball, we were running well, Alex was throwing the ball, the receivers were doing a great job catching and the offensive line was also doing a great job. I just believe, with the kind of offense we've got, that Hoss (offensive coordinator Jim Hostler) has, we're going to get the job done."

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