Before Jim Harbaugh arrived in San Francisco, Alex Smith had never put together back-to-back games where he had a quarterback rating above 100. Not to mention he had only had seven games prior in his career where his quarterback rating hit the century mark.
Smith has always been a highly-criticized and talked-about figure in the mainstream media, mostly because of his lofty draft status and his inability to live up to it. But the beauty of it now is that No. 11 is coming into his own right before our eyes under the tutelage of Harbaugh.
The 49ers' old-school attack of being a run-first team is a refreshing site to a league where 400-yard passing games have become the norm and 3,000-yard seasons are a drop in the bucket. By being a run-first team, it takes all of the pressure off of Smith to be San Francisco's only source of yardage. Teams like the Lions and Packers rely so heavily on their respected passing games.
Currently, there are 13 teams that are averaging less than 100 yards rushing per game. And in 2011, there were only seven teams that finished below that mark.
To put that in perspective, let's flash back to 2001, a time when the NFL was still a run-first league. In 2001, the NFL only had five teams below the 100-yard mark.
However, it's important to look beyond the stats, so we can figure out how Smith's quarterback rating hit 107.7 against the Detroit Lions. With the help of all-22 film, let's break down his impressive performance.
First Quarter, 12:29 Left to Play
In under two minutes, the 49ers defense had already forced a three-and-out as Matthew Stafford and the Lions offense managed to pick up only four yards on their first three plays.
San Francisco started their drive at their own 33, but quickly moved the ball deep in Detroit territory by gaining a combined 48 yards on two pass plays.
Yet the third Smith pass proved to be the biggest dagger, as he hit Vernon Davis for a 21-yard touchdown strike. The 49ers offense was in a very common personnel that they run often. They deployed two running backs, two wide receivers and one tight end. Fullback Bruce Miller was flanked out to the left with Frank Gore the lone back in the backfield.
Detroit's defense was in a man-to-man cover 1 look, and they were bringing the heat. The Lions sent six defenders at Alex Smith. He immediately recognized the blitz and single high safety look, which enabled him to throw a beautiful strike to Vernon Davis up the seam.
You can see here the safety gets caught napping in his back pedal, and by the time he realizes he has no help behind him, Davis is already in the process of blowing by him.
John Wendling was the safety that got torched. He was filling in for the injured Louis Delmas. Our friends over at Pro Football Focus had him graded at -2.0 in pass coverage against the 49ers.
Fourth Quarter, 08:32 Left to Play
This play isn't going to jump off the page at you by any means because it's only a four-yard gain, but what really impressed me was his decision-making and ability to get rid of the ball by taking what the defense gave him.
Before Harbaugh arrived, one of the biggest things that hampered Smith was his decision-making skills. His poor reads often caused him to throw into tight windows that weren't always open.
Detroit is in a base cover 2 look on this 2nd-and-11 play. The Lions' primary focus is to keep everything in front of them; they can't afford to give up the deep ball considering they already have them in a hole.
San Francisco is thinking the same thing. It would like to get a receiver behind the secondary, but it is prepared to take an underneath route to set up the 3rd-and-short.
No. 11 immediately feels the pressures off the edge from Cliff Avril. Three of the four 49ers receivers who are out on routes haven't even came out of their breaks yet, so instead of waiting another second to see if they are open out of their breaks, Smith flips his vision from the left side of the field to his short route underneath.
By design, Davis was already out of his route waiting for the potential throw.
Sometimes we all forget that those tiny details can change the course of the game. Let's just say Smith waits another second for the developing route down the sideline. Potentially two bad things could happen. He could get sacked by Avril, and there could be a potential fumble, or he could force a throw into coverage and it gets picked off. Both things would have changed the complete momentum of the game.
By hitting his hot read, the 49ers now have a third and manageable, and they go on to pick up a first down on the very next play.
Fourth Quarter, 08:32 Left to Play
On San Francisco's last scoring play of the night, Smith throws another touchdown pass to Davis. No. 85 finished the night with five catches for 73 yards and two touchdowns. Much improved from last year's game, where he only had two catches for eight yards.
At this point, the 49ers are in control and have a commanding lead of the game, so given the fact they come out in a heavy set, it's expected that they will be running the ball to keep the clock running. However, it was 2nd-and-3 on an obvious running down, but if you couple the down and distance with the heavy set, there's a good possibility a pass would work in this situation.
Detroit has nine defenders in the box in effort to stop the run. So, its play call is genius at this point, as a play action boot to the right will give Smith space to move.
Davis is on the end of the line of scrimmage. He will appear as if he won't be going out on a route, as he blocks the defender in front of him for a split second, but as soon as he releases on his route, he runs straight to an open area along the right sideline.
Smith leads him perfectly, as there is plenty of open room to run. The end result is a score from 23 yards out. The perfect cap to Harbaugh vs. Schwartz Round II.
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