San Francisco 49ers: How Quarterback Alex Smith Can Sharpen His Game
After eight years and one of the rockiest starts the league has ever seen for a former No. 1 overall quarterback, Alex Smith has finally asserted himself as a starter in the NFL—for the team that drafted him, no less.
The San Francisco 49ers quarterback had a career year in 2011 under rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh. In his best season as a 49er, Smith saw highs in virtually every statistical category except touchdowns (and interceptions). After ending a decade-long playoff drought, the team went 13-3 with Smith at the helm, and expectations are high going forward.
If Smith can improve and deliver in 2012, the 49ers will be Super Bowl Champions again. His progress, or lack thereof, could make or break San Francisco's chances this coming season. The odds are that he will continue to take steps forward in this new regime, and with that in mind, it will be interesting to see where he develops.
After reviewing Smith's entire 2011 game film, I've narrowed down some particular areas where Smith can improve. In the following slides, we'll break down where Alex Smith can take his game to another level.
1. Quicken Release
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One of the things that makes Peyton Manning so great and frustrating for defenses is his tight release. The quick release is a shared feature among great quarterbacks in the NFL.
This is a technical aspect of Smith’s game that could improve, ultimately making him a much better passer.
It would limit the number of sacks and physical punishment if Smith could quicken his release. In 2011, Smith took at least a dozen sacks that could have been avoided. While he has improved his decision-making, he needs to get a little bit quicker at it and get the ball out that much faster.
It frustrates defenses when quarterbacks have rapid releases where no amount of pass-rush seems effective. A quicker release by Smith would help the entire offense perform at a faster tempo.
2. Throw Receivers Open
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This is another thing the elite quarterbacks do on game day. Smith now has playmakers all around him, and he needs to be able to throw them open.
He needs to enable his backs and receivers to get yards after catch by leading his receivers into soft spots in the defense.
San Francisco added players with great speed, athleticism and playmaking ability on offense, but it’s up to Smith to put them in a position to excel. Especially now with the addition of LaMichael James, Smith has to have James facing the right direction after the catch.
With the proper ball placement, any route can break a defense for a big gainer. And it’s about playing within the system; the West Coast offense is about the system, which includes taking advantage of route combinations. Smith being able to throw receivers open would optimize the production of the playbook and result in more 20-plus yard plays in 2012.
3. Improve Vision, Keep Eyes Downfield
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Smith’s tendency to check the ball down goes beyond broken plays; it seems that there is a level of comfort with him to throw short while things are still developing downfield. Smith would hold on to the ball and not see players breaking open downfield, not trusting or not anticipating that they would be open.
It’s apparent that he feels more secure with the underneath routes.
However, with the added deep threats, there will be more opportunities to go downfield this year than years past, and Smith will have to adjust his game to best utilize his receivers. It will seriously frustrate players like Randy Moss and Mario Manningham if Smith neglects the threat they are providing because it ultimately translates into missed opportunities.
Smith needs to get better at seeing things downfield before they happen; his downfield anticipation must be there, along with trusting deep receivers to attack the football and beat the coverage.
4. Pull the Trigger
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Smith had a tendency to hold back for one reason or another and missed opportunities with open receivers. While he grew in confidence ten-fold, there is room to develop there, and it starts with pulling the trigger on throws—being more decisive and taking more risks.
We saw what Smith was capable of, particularly in the postseason, when he pulled the trigger on tight-window throws against New Orleans. Smith had 24 completions for 299 yards, with three touchdowns and zero interceptions, a 101.0 QB rating.
Considering the team he is on, Smith can afford to play with a little more risk going forward, and the reward will be grander on game day. For Smith to have those 250-300-plus yard games with multiple touchdowns, he needs to test defenses on a more consistent basis.