Keeping Alex Smith Upright Is Key to the San Francisco 49ers' 2012 Season

Vincent FrankCorrespondent IAugust 20, 2012

ST. LOUIS, MO - JANUARY 1:  Quarterback Alex Smith #11 of the San Francisco 49ers is sacked by defensive end James Hall #96 of the St. Louis Rams in the second half of the game on January 1, 2012 at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Missouri. The 49ers defeated the Rams 34-27. (Photo by Whitney Curtis/Getty Images)
Whitney Curtis/Getty Images

Last season, it became apparent that the San Francisco 49ers were asking very little of Alex Smith. The game plan was catered to a solid running game and one of the best defenses in the National Football League.

This combination got them an overtime loss away from the Super Bowl.

They cannot expect the same thing to occur in 2012. Instead, the 49ers are going to have to ask more of their embattled starting quarterback if they're going to be making reservations for New Orleans in February.

Not only do the 49ers need Smith to improve upon what was his best NFL season in 2011, they need to keep him on the football field.

This might sound pretty obvious, but let me delve further into the reasoning behind it. Let me also question whether this is even going to be possible. While you cannot take much, good or bad, from a preseason game, it is important to take an objective approach when drawing conclusions. That is exactly what I plan to do this morning

One thing has become apparent over the course of the 49ers first two preseason games. Their entire offensive identity and ability to succeed on that side of the ball hinges on keeping Smith upright.

Simply put, Colin Kaepernick, Scott Tolzien and Josh Johnson are not going to be able to lead this unit through extended periods of time during the regular season. All have their shortcomings, mostly equated to the lack of experience.

If you think San Francisco ran a watered-down playbook in 2011, just imagine what would happen to their offense if one of those three quarterbacks saw extended action in lieu of Smith.

Kaepernick, although improving on mechanics, is far from ready to be a starting quarterback in the league. He continues to struggle with pocket awareness, timing and accuracy on the intermediate routes. In order to succeed in the 49ers' version of the West Coast offense, you need to be able to hit the timing routes and allow the receivers an ability to run after the catch.

I just don't see Kaepernick being able to provide that in 2012.

Tolzien might have a bright future ahead of himself, but he isn't ready to shoulder the load on a consistent basis either. The Wisconsin product just needs more experience in the preseason in order to become capable of leading an offense during the regular season.

It is apparent that Johnson has a rifle of an arm. I had noticed this dating back to his days at San Diego and with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. As is the case with most quarterbacks, he struggles with consistency and accuracy. This was readily apparent against the Houston Texans on Saturday night.

While most NFL teams would struggle without their starting quarterbacks, this is magnified with the 49ers. They have invested a lot in Smith, at least in terms of scheme and personnel. Having to change that approach during the regular season will have adverse affects.


How to "guard" against it?

Pass protection. It really is this simple. San Francisco was brutal in this aspect of the game against the Texans. While teams do not scheme too much against defenses in the preseason, it was apparent that the 49ers offensive line just wasn't up to snuff.

Anthony Davis continues to struggle, and Alex Boone had his first poor outing of training camp. If that side of the line continues to be inconsistent, we will be holding our collective breaths for the remainder of the preseason and into the regular year.

It might be too late to move Davis inside and implement Boone as the 49ers' starting right tackle, like I have mentioned over the course of the last two years. That being said, something might need to be done in order for San Francisco to fix these issues. Veteran guard Leonard Davis might be in the twilight of his career, but he could add some veteran leadership there.

Of course, we have two more preseason games to figure out what is going to happen in regards to the 49ers' pass protection, but Saturday was ugly for a myriad of different reasons. Re-watching the game, I did come to the conclusion that breakdowns in front of Smith might have had more to do with confusion than scheme. That is a good sign.

I am still, however, underwhelmed by the performance of Davis, thus far, through the first few weeks of training camp. He needs to get his act together in short order.

Maybe the 49ers will scheme more in preparation for Sunday's matchup against the Denver Broncos. After all, they cannot afford to pull Smith simply because they're afraid of him getting killed. This seemed to be the case after the starting quarterback was taken out after just two series against Houston. If so, we will get a better idea of where San Francisco's pass protection is.

In reality it is too early to jump the gun, good or bad, through two preseason games. As good as San Francisco looked against the Minnesota Vikings, they looked equally as bad on Saturday against Houston. This team is still ahead of the curve and needs to come out against Denver as crisp as ever. After all, we know the third preseason game is the biggest indicator heading into the regular year.

I want to see Smith play the first half. I don't want to see the 49ers have to pull him because they fear injury. They won't be able to do that during the regular season and must treat this game as a primer for the real thing.

The summer is nearly over. It's time that Jim Harbaugh and Co. take off their shorts and put some slacks on. This is a team that is supposed to be playing with the big boys come January. That will never happen if Smith is watching from the sidelines. You can take that to the bank.