Coming into the 2011 season nobody and I mean nobody would have told you Alex Smith is great under pressure. One of the huge knocks on Smith coming into this season was his inability to beat the blitz. With a young (but talented) Offensive Line and a new offensive system paired with Smith’s reputation for folding under pressure it didn’t take a rocket scientist to know teams were going to send the house early and often against the 49ers this season.
Only this season Smith has been a master under pressure. In fact Smith ranks 2nd to only Tom Brady with a 132.1 Quarter Back rating against the blitz. Alex has completed 18 of 24 passes for 229 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions against the blitz this season. Now compare that to last year’s paltry 78.7 rating against the blitz. In all he completed 64 of 106 passes for 828 yards with three TDs and four INTs.
So what’s changed? Has Smith suddenly morphed into “Alex Cool” all of the sudden here? Is this a Rich Gannon like resurrection we’re witnessing? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet 49er fans. While Smith has improved especially his foot work and getting rid of the football he isn’t the main reason for this turnaround at all.
Jim Harbaugh is and here’s why…..
So how can the coach be more responsible for this vast turnaround more than the QB that’s actually playing the game. Here’s how, many thought that Harbaugh’s offense would take forever to implement and would be ineffective early in the season due to it’s vast complexity. Those who thought that are both right and wrong, see Harbaugh doesn’t have to install the entire system and have it mastered to fix things like blitz pickup. This part of the game Harbaugh has actually simplified not only for Alex Smith but the offense as a whole.
Wide Receiver Josh Morgan explained that both the QB and WR had decision making responsibility when it came to picking up the blitz last season under Mike Singletary. The receiver was to cut off his route and the QB’s job was to find the open receiver. Simple right? Wrong, very wrong that’s not how it works. The QB is the coach on the field; he has the authority to audible at the line, change the offensive line’s protection over ruling the Center if he sees fit. So why wouldn’t the QB also have control over where the receivers go? You’ll have to ask coach Singletary or maybe Jimmy Raye on that one.
Morgan does a great job of explaining it here:
“Sometimes we would get it wrong and sometimes we would get it right,” Morgan said. “But when you’ve got other people trying to do the quarterback’s job, then you’ve got miscommunication. He’s holding the ball because he doesn’t really know where we’re going to go and vice versa.”
This season the team has a real Head Coach, someone that understands offensive football (what a concept!). Now each play has designated “blitz beaters” or hot routes for the receivers to run when the QB calls out the blitz or it is recognized on the field. Hey! Now the QB knows where his receivers are going to be thus he understands where to put the ball.
Morgan again puts this in perfect perspective:
“Last year we had so much going on that they put on Alex’s mind when it came to the blitz,” Morgan said. “This year, we don’t have to cut our routes short or anything. We don’t have to do anything. We just have to let Alex find that weak spot like he always does.”
There have been a lot of excuses made for Alex Smith throughout his career here in San Francisco coining the term “Alexcuses”. This season is seen as the end all be all for Smith with a highly talented rookie behind him and a talented team ready to win in the near future it’s now or never for Smith.
Jim Harbaugh was heavily criticized for bringing back Alex Smith yet he attested time and time again that he thought Alex could be successful under him. In just 4 short games it seems he has already vastly improved one of the biggest shortcomings of Smith’s career. It’s too early to jump to conclusions but there are a lot of QB resurrection stories out there from Rich Gannon to our own Steve Young (go watch Young’s Tampa Bay Bucs tapes I dare you). And Smith looks like a different player under Harbaugh but he’ll have to do it for a lot longer than just 4 games.
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