Under theguidance of quarterback guru Norv Turner, the 49ers' Alex Smith is playing likea top pick this season
San Franciscooffensive coordinator Norv Turner knew what was coming as he strolled byquarterback Alex Smith in the team's crowded locker room following Sunday's20--13 win over St. Louis. Smith pulled Turner aside, leaned close and said thegame could've been a rout if he hadn't misfired on three passes with big-playpotential. Turner grinned, patted Smith on the shoulder and encouraged him toenjoy the win--and his clear signs of improvement--before telling an observer,"That's Alex. He's always tough on himself."
Despite Smith'sself-criticism, the 2005 No. 1 overall pick now bears little resemblance to theflustered rookie who threw just one touchdown pass and had 11 interceptions."I already feel like my rookie year was a long time ago," Smith says."This reminds me of the experience I had in college [at Utah]. I had arough freshman year, then kept working hard and started turning the corner as asophomore. I can feel myself turning the corner again."
While Smithdidn't dominate against the Rams, he looked poised, managed the game well, andunlike last season, when he was sacked 29 times in nine games, had no problemevading the rush, rolling out occasionally to fire crisp passes to receiversnear the sidelines. He also didn't throw an interception or fumble against aRams defense that forced five turnovers last week.
It certainlyhelps that Smith has better talent around him this year. From second-yearrunning back Frank Gore (29 carries, 127 yards, one touchdown), newly elevatedto starter, to free agent wideout Antonio Bryant (four receptions, 131 yards,one score) and rookie tight end Vernon Davis, the sixth overall pick in thisyear's draft, the 49ers have given Smith more playmakers. They've also givenhim a coordinator who knows how to use all that talent.
After SanFrancisco hired Turner last January, he met with Smith and explained hisstrategy for turning him into a good NFL quarterback. He assured Smith that theoffensive system would be molded to fit his talents--mobility and accuracy--butTurner emphasized the need for Smith to speed his game up. Smith estimates thathe practiced thousands of drop-backs in the off-season, learning to get set inthe pocket faster and read the defense more quickly. "Alex had to learn tonot be so deliberate," says Turner, who helped groom Troy Aikman into aHall of Famer at Dallas. "He needed to speed up his decision making and hisrelease. Once he started doing that, the game started slowing down forhim."
Turner'squarterback-friendly offense also has boosted Smith's comfort level. The coachbelieves in spreading the ball around, establishing a strong running game andusing constant motion to confuse defenses. The effects on Smith were immediate.In the opener, a 34--27 loss at Arizona, he completed 23 of 40 passes for 288yards and one touchdown, and against the Rams he was 11 of 22 for 233 yards,including a rifle shot to Bryant that ended in a 72-yard touchdown, the longestof Smith's NFL career. "The beauty of this offense is that it generates alot of big plays," says 49ers backup quarterback Trent Dilfer, "andwhen you're a young quarterback, you need those big plays to build yourconfidence. It's too hard to [consistently] drive the ball against defenseswhen you're at [Smith's] stage."
Smith has alreadymatured to the point that he knows the mistakes he made in a game before hesees them on film on Monday. In the locker room after Sunday's win, he soughtout Bryant to apologize for overthrowing him on a crossing route midway throughthe second quarter that could have led to a touchdown. "I told him hecould've had a 200-yard [receiving] day if I had put that ball where it wassupposed to be. I need to make that play next time." It's little momentslike those that have the 49ers feeling that Smith could be on the verge of abreakout season.
"Alex stillhas a long way to go with his confidence," says Mike Nolan, San Francisco'ssecond-year coach. "I want to see him get to the point where he's arrogantout there. But I also realize that his job is not to get there today. His jobis to make our plays work. So far he's been doing that."
A RUSH INATLANTA
Vick Goes Back ToCollege
Some of thecredit for Atlanta's dominant running attack goes to the creativity ofoffensive coordinator Greg Knapp. To better exploit quarterback Michael Vick'smobility, Knapp spent this off-season studying the option schemes run bycollege teams such as Texas and West Virginia. The result? Vick ran for 127yards on 14 attempts in Sunday's 14--3 win over Tampa Bay, and running backWarrick Dunn added 134 yards on 21 carries. Overall the Falcons churned out ateam-record 303 rushing yards against the Bucs, last season's No. 1--rankeddefense.
Knapp came upwith the idea while watching the bowl games last winter, then persuaded hisbosses to sign on after the Falcons failed to make the playoffs. "We talkedabout it right after the season," Falcons general manager Rich McKay saidof the incorporation of some option runs. "It's a complementary piece to analready good attack."
The mostdevastating play used by the Falcons on Sunday involved Vick in the shotgun,reading if the defensive end was buying a fake handoff to Dunn and bootleggingoutside if he did. Using that play and others, Vick gained at least 12 yards oneight of his 14 carries. "We weren't prepared for that," Bucs defensiveend Greg Spires said. "I don't know why." Maybe they weren't watchingenough college games.
A Line That'sGetting Shelled
Art Shell's Hallof Fame credentials as a Raiders tackle had Oakland optimistic that its newcoach would mold the offensive line into a cohesive unit that would protect thequarterback. Oops. After giving up nine sacks in their opening loss to theChargers, the Raiders' line performed miserably again in Sunday's 28--6 loss toBaltimore. Twice in the first quarter Aaron Brooks lost fumbles after botchedexchanges with center Jake Grove. Brooks strained his right rotator cuff tryingto recover the second fumble and left the game. His replacement, second-year QBAndrew Walter, was sacked six times and fumbled two more snaps.
The Ravens playedOakland the same way the Chargers had in the opener, crowding the line witheight or nine defenders. The tactic stifled Oakland's running game and allowedboth opponents to repeatedly pressure Brooks and Walter. Shell says the Raidersmade adjustments last week in practice, but they didn't work. "We came intothis game with some things to help with the protection scheme, such asthree-step and five-step drops and two-tight-end [sets] and tried to move thequarterback around," said Shell. "But execution is the bottomline."
Raiders runningback LaMont Jordan, who's averaging 1.9 yards a carry through two games, saysthe reason the line is getting shredded isn't a great mystery: "Too manyguys are getting beat in one-on-one battles."
Houston Has Causefor Hope
The Texans are0--2, and their fifth NFL season likely won't be their first in the playoffs.But rookie coach Gary Kubiak has already proved to be an excellent hire becauseof his work with embattled quarterback David Carr's mechanics anddecision-making. Looking confident and decisive despite taking nine sacks ineight quarters, Carr has completed an NFL-best 75.5% of his passes, with fourtouchdowns and no interceptions. He's not staring down receivers the way heused to, and safeties are having trouble reading where he's going with theball. For a guy who has never completed 62% of his passes in a season and neverbeen better than plus-three in touchdown-interception differential, those arepretty good signs.
• Check outJeffri Chadiha's Inside the NFL at SI.com/football.
Shaun Alexander, last season's NFL MVP, is alreadymissing Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson. Alexander has gained only 140 yardsthrough two games while averaging a paltry 3.1 yards per carry. Hutchinson'sreplacement, sixth-year veteran Floyd Womack, has struggled so badly that coachMike Holmgren is considering replacing him with backup center Chris Spencer....The Bills were criticized for taking safety Donte Whitner eighth overall inApril's draft, but Whitner has silenced the skeptics. He intercepted a pass inthe season-opening loss to New England, and in his first NFL start had seventackles in Sunday's 16--6 victory in Miami.... Giants QB Eli Manning must lovePhilly cheesesteaks. After throwing for 371 yards in Sunday's comeback win overthe Eagles, he now has more career 300-yard games in Lincoln Financial Field(two) than he has in Giants Stadium (none).