A quarterback named Smith won the 49ers second game of the season with a 24-16 win over the Broncos in London. The QB’s first name was Troy who looked more comfortable throughout the game than the other Smith who has been under center, Alex. This is just one game against a team in freefall mode like the 49ers but nonetheless encouraging for a quarterback who was making only his third career NFL start under center. It is a little weird saying this but the 49ers might have a quarterback controversy on their hands. Let’s hand out some Game Gold Nuggets (GGN). GGN’s are awarded based on the 49ers play on a scale of 1-5. 1=worst, 5= best.
The 49ers offense looked like a great football team in the first-half with a score of 3-0 but not the American football kind but of the British kind. In British football a 3-0, or 3-nil as the British say, is exciting and assures a win but in American football a 3-0 score is a snooze fest. Again the 49ers played well in one half and fell apart in the other. However this time the great play came in the second half rather than the first-half which had been a trend for the 49ers. The biggest stat to take away from yesterday’s win is zero turnovers for the offense. In the 49ers two wins this season they have committed zero turnovers and in the six losses this season they have had a least one turnover.
The first-half did not look good for Troy Smith and the 49ers offense as they gained only 70 rushing yards and passed for 37 yards. But with a 3-0 lead at half-time against a Broncos team that is about as good as the 49ers, the offense came out in the second half and passed their way to a victory. All 21 points the 49ers scored in the second-half came in the fourth quarter with a game-tying bootleg run for a touchdown by Smith, a go-ahead touchdown catch by Michael Crabtree and Frank Gore’s three-yard touchdown run that gave the 49ers a 14 point lead. There were so many times in the first-half the 49ers offense were being predictable with the running game that I thought would doom the 49ers in the second-half. I lost count of how many third-down runs I saw from Gore that was followed by a punt.
In the second-half the 49ers opened up the offense allowing for Smith to finish the day passing 12-for-19 for 196 yards with one touchdown pass and one rushing touchdown. Smith’s numbers in the win don’t scream Pro Bowl quarterback but when the 49ers leaned on him to make a big play Smith came through with the composure of a quarterback starting his 100th career game. Smith was able to make plays thanks to Gore rushing for 118 yards and an offensive line that played its best game of the year. The offensive line did not give up a sack all game. For the third straight game Gore rushed for over 100 yards.
I am not sure if Smith, the Troy should remain the starter. It is only one game and even though he has confidence the momentum will be slowed down as the 49ers enter their bye week. But at the same time having two weeks to prepare for your fourth NFL career start could be an advantage for Smith. Watching the game yesterday I can see why Mike Singletary went with Smith rather than David Carr: Smith’s speed and scrambling abilities. Smith’s scrambles played a huge part in the touchdown that tied the game in the fourth quarter. His one-yard bootleg TD was set up with a 38-yard pass to tight end Delaine Walker that landed the offense on the goal-line. On the play Smith had to avoid the Broncos rush by running outside of the pocket and just as it looked like he would run he heaved a pass to Walker that had more hang-time than a punt but accurately landed in his hands for the catch.
At this point of the season I am for anyone starting at quarterback who gives the 49ers the best chance to win. But the 49ers winning does not come down to the two Smith’s at quarterback. If the 49ers can get the offensive line to play every game like they did in London anyone named Smith under center could be successful. You also have to credit the defense for pressuring Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton all game and making the Broncos one-dimensional by crushing the running game. Combine both of those with an offense not committing turnovers will get a W in the win column each week with Troy or Alex.
The 49ers defense might have received a perfect score of five GGN’s for the first time this season if not for the 369 passing yards Orton put up. Even with all those yards the 49ers defense allowed the Broncos offense in the red zone only twice in the first three quarters. The 49ers shut down running back Knownshon Moreno who rushed for only 40 yards on 11 attempts. Other than the 71-yard pass to Brandon Lloyd in the third quarter that set up the Broncos first touchdown the 49ers did not make mistakes. Instead they made plays to get the 49ers offense back on the field to score points. More importantly the 49ers defense had two turnovers, a fumble and interception, in the Broncos’ final three drives.
Manny Lawson was the defensive player of the game recording three tackles, one sack and a forced fumble. The fumble Lawson caused was a sack on Orton in the fourth quarter that gave the 49ers the football at the Broncos 18-yardline. At the time the 49ers were up 17-10 and followed the fumble with a score for a two touchdown lead. The Broncos were able to get one more touchdown but on a drive in the final minute of the game cornerback Shawntae Spencer intercepted a pass from Orton that sealed the win.
Before the 49ers could get their offense going punter Andy Lee was the star of the game averaging 49.3 yards per punt with four of his six punts landing inside the 20. With the defense playing so well and taking away the Broncos run game Lee’s deep kicks forced the Broncos to go the length of the football field for a touchdown. Kicker Jed Nedney made one of his two field goals. His missed field goal of 52 yards had the distance but hit the right upright and kept the score 7-3 in favor of the Broncos in the third quarter.
Returner Ted Ginn Jr. almost broke a few kickoff returns for a touchdown. Ginn is getting closer to scoring the 49ers first kickoff/punt return for a touchdown this season. More importantly the 49ers punt coverage kept in check Broncos returner Eddie Royal who had only 7.8 yards per return.
Give credit to Singletary for making a move that most thought was destined to fail, including me, in starting a third-stringer quarterback. Before the game his decision looked erratic and now after the game he looks like a genius. Now Singletary has a quarterback controversy and must decide which Smith to start after the bye week against the Rams. Singletary’s decision will be easier if Alex Smith cannot play because of his injured shoulder. Either way I suspected Singletary will start Troy Smith no matter how healthy Alex Smith is. Singletary is in a ‘I am going to try anything’ mode to save the 49ers season and his coaching job. With the way Troy Smith played and made Singletary look like he knows what he is doing Singletary will reward Troy with another start.
Offensive coordinator Mike Johnson was too predictable in the first-half with mainly calling running plays (16 runs, 10 passes) but that may have been by design. If so, it was genius. All week we heard how Gore was going to get a heavy load, which he did, and how they would not put Smith in position to make mistakes. That was the game plan in the first-half which was hard to watch. I thought the 49ers would come out in the second-half and do more of the same with their vanilla offense and let another potential win slip out of their hands. Instead Johnson allowed Smith to pass his way for the win which caught the Broncos defense off-guard as they mainly played for the run.
Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky called a great game for his defense. The secondary remains a huge issue and the 369 passing yards would have been exploited by a playoff caliber team for more points but in all other aspects the 49ers defense came up big in the win. One of the reasons why the defense gave up so many passing yards is because they made the Broncos one-dimensional by shutting down their running game. Even with constant pressure called by Manusky it could not shut down the Broncos passing game until the fourth quarter when it mattered most.
Bye week. It is a shame the 49ers lose momentum with the bye week after recording their second win of the season. The 49ers return in week 10 to face-off against the divisional rivals St. Louis Rams.