Troy Smith in action during Week 8's 24-16 victory over the Denver Broncos
Amid a season where everything seems to have gone terribly wrong and overcoming a typical slow start, in the end, everything went right for the San Francisco 49ers Week 8 in London, England at Wembley Stadium. Before a crowd of 83,000, quarterback Troy Smith eventually did everything asked of him and more. No sacks, no turnovers and a win. He turned a lot of heads across 49er nation. Troy Smith could have had every excuse in the book at his disposal to chalk up to another Sunday loss for the 49ers two weekends ago in London. But in his debut appearance with 49ers, he didn't need them. When the dust cleared, the 49ers found themselves hard-pressed for an excuse to not start Troy Smith against the St Louis Rams at Candlestick Park this week. Before we discuss this week's matchup, let's look at how he made a strong case to earn another start.
Though down only 7-3 going into the 4th quarter, it seemed that the 49ers offense was too one-dimensional to erase the deficit. Playcalls were conservative to fault until that point, with a heavy reliance on Frank Gore. If you watched Troy Smith early on, you sensed the potential...and the constraint. In the second half came the adjustments that would payoff in the fourth quarter. He never flinched as he led the 49ers to victory in near-flawless fashion, completing 12-of-19 passes for 196 and one touchdown, and he even ran in for another score. It may not be a sexy stat line, but it was efficient, crafty, disciplined and very productive.
More importantly, beyond the stats were the intangibles. The moves and decisions he made behind the line and outside of the pocket told the real story. Troy Smith did not give up on plays; instead he kept them alive or orchestrated new ones with execution. He showed a quick-thinking wit rarely shown by 49er quarterbacks in recent years and definitely a maturity not typical of a young quarterback with just a handful of starts under his belt. A busted screen play that left Frank Gore wide open, sent Smith scrambling back near mid-field as he motioned Delanie Walker down-field towards the end zone. On his back foot, with a Bronco closing in, Smith launched the ball through double coverage into Walker's hands, setting up first-and-goal at the Denver one-yard line in the fourth quarter.
To the anguish of 49er fans, most of the game mirrored most games this season. The offense struggled to keep drives alive and move the chains. Three of their four first half drives resulted in punts by Andy Lee. Troy Smith found some rhythm that led to a field goal, thanks to the quality production from running back Frank Gore. If it was any consolation, Denver had the same struggles and lost the day's battle for field position due in part to a rather short punting game from Britton Colquitt, averaging just 33.7 yards per punt.
Three 49er drives in the third quarter resulted in two Andy Lee punts and a botched Joe Nedney 52-yard field goal that had the leg, only to hit the upright. Denver's Tim Tebow scored touchdown on a one-yard quarterback sneak to take a 7-3 lead into the fourth quarter. Until the fourth quarter, Troy Smith looked rather pedestrian, only notable by the fact that he avoided sacks and committing costly mistakes.
Three fourth quarter drives brought the 49ers to life. Early in the fourth quarter, a Ted Ginn kickoff return to mid-field put the 49ers in favorable field position. Following two connections to Delanie Walker, advancing to the Denver one-yard line. Troy Smith drew the play-fake and boot-legged to his right for a touchdown run to take a 10-7 lead.
Their next drive began at mid-field again thanks to a 21-yard Colquitt punt. Smith connected with Michael Crabtree twice on the drive, including a 28-yard strike for a touchdown that exploited Denver's defensive weaknesses.
One would be remiss to not mention the performance of the San Francisco defense, who forced two critical turnovers in the fourth quarter. Down 17-10 mid-way through the fourth quarter, Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton was flushed out of the pocket, forced to scramble for yards. Manny Lawson quickly closed-in from behind and had is eye on Orton's right hand, carrying the football unprotected. With impeccable timing, Lawson jarred the ball lose, leading to a 49er recovery and eight-yard return by Takeo Spikes to the Broncos 18-yard line. From there, the 49ers burned over three minutes towards Frank Gore's second rushing touchdown of the season to take a 24-10 lead with under three minutes to play.
The 49ers would punt one last time from deep in their own territory just after the two minute warning, placing its fate in a pesky defense that contained the duo of Orton and receiver Brandon Lloyd. That trust paid off with a Shawntae Spencer interception of an Orton pass with :39 left in the game to seal the victory. With that, Troy Smith took pleasure in lining up in the victory formation for a kneel-down to cement the 49ers best game of the season by far.
Troy Smith played like a leader and after the game spoke like one as he praised his offensive line and his targets at the post-game press conference. It is hard to imagine not seeing Smith receiving an enthusiastic home-crowd cheer this weekend against St. Louis at Candlestick Park. After all, he managed to avoid turnovers and sacks, a feat not accomplished since last year's 20-3 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars on November 29, 2009 by Alex Smith.
Thanks to a timely bye week, Troy Smith had have plenty of time to prepare for this week's critical divisional matchup against the St. Louis Rams and fellow Heisman Trophy colleague, rookie Sam Bradford. Coach Singletary's job stability now rests on the fruits of his decision to start Troy Smith in Wembley. The pressure was on in London to vindicate his coach Mike Singletary. As of this writing, Singletary had yet to name a starter for Sunday, possibly pending on Alex Smith's injury status. If poise is an indicator, Troy Smith will be prepared to produce a home win for a home crowd that yearns for a quarterback who can lead the franchise back to glory.
Jonathan Cronin is a freelance writer and college student based in Austin, Texas. He writes on culture, sports and politics. He runs the new sports blog The Cranky Spectator (thecrankyspectator.blogspot.com). He can be reached at jcroninmail[at]gmail[dot]com.