Article Title: Third down amnesia.
It was once again Alex Smithís team that took the field inside Lucas Oil Stadium home of Peyton Manningís undefeated Indianapolis Colts. The first round 2005 NFL draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers had not been a starting quarterback since 2007 because of the injury bug and intensified training camp competition. His commitment to right all his wrongs as the 49ers coveted first round draft choice were tested in Houston when he received the call and resurrected himself to play against the Colts in staring down one of the most prolific playoff teams in the NFL.
Forecasted as the long-shot underdog in this game the San Francisco 49ers under Mike Singletary came into this game with a well conceived detailed game plan to wreck havoc with Peyton Manningís supreme ability to make immediate adjustments along the line of scrimmage as his teamís untitled offensive coordinator. Peyton Manning by far is one of the masters of decoding and deciphering an array of defensive arrangements and schemes to the tune of being one of the best third down conversion teams inside the NFL today.
Hats off to San Francisco 49er defensive coordinator Greg Manusky for dialing up one trick look after another to keep the All-Pro veteran-wise quarterback guessing on what look was real and what was perceived to be real? The 3-4 defensive alignment gave us so many different options to throw at Manningís peripheral vision that he often found himself with no one to throw to due to well orchestrated coverage and sacked three times for a loss of 20 total yards on the day.
The cost to the defense was immense upon losing veteran shutdown cornerback Nate Clements to a broken shoulder blade he incurred upon a second-quarter punt return in which he was called upon to do within this game to provide a spark. Third-year player cornerback Tarell Brown came in afterwards and played well throughout the rest of the game with no major hitches to speak of.
The Indianapolis Colts running attack headed by Joseph Addai was completely and utterly nullified by the stingy 49er defense limiting him to 20 carries for only 62 total yards and a 3.1-yard average per carry. However Joseph Addai would answer back with a well designed trick play of his own by throwing the ball behind the line of scrimmage to a wide-open Reggie Wayne who led the Colts receivers with 12 receptions out of 20 attempts for 147 total yards and one 22-yard touchdown. The touchdown right at the tail end of the third quarter solidified their lead the rest of the game and victory.
Not enough can be said of the 49er defense that intimidated the resourceful mind of Peyton Manning all day long by denying him a touchdown throw and sacking him three times for a loss of 20 total yards to boot. Pivotal plays came from nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin with a sack, left defensive tackle Isaac Sapoaga with a sack, Ray McDonald with a sack, pressure by Manny Lawson, Shawntae Spencerís batted down touchdown pass from Manning and physical hitting by cornerback Tarell Brown.
This defense came to play inspirational football but again fell victim to having to defend a field for extended amounts of time because the 49er offense could not convert on third downs going 2-for-10 or 20% overall efficiency which doesnít win you games against teams like Indianapolis. Time of possession was banked by the Colts with 33:34 to our 26:26 and penalties a total of seven for 50 total yards killed drives just starting to break water which dropped them like a rock being thrown into the middle of a pond.
Devastating and possible game changing penalties included a controversial offensive holding call on left guard David Baas, a false start penalty on Vernon Davis that helped kill a drive, an unsportsmanlike penalty on Josh Morgan for celebrating a Vernon Davis touchdown that was enforced later to give the Colts good field position to hit a critical field goal in the second quarter, a defensive encroachment penalty on Isaac Sapoaga in the third quarter that gave the Colts a first down after being third and five on the 49er 37-yard line and a delay of game penalty on Alex Smith in the fourth quarter that backed us up further on third down.
Everything seemed so hopeful in the first half as we limited Peyton Manning to residual offensive advances mostly in passing of 170 total yards and just 21 total yards in rushing. We led 14-9 and Alex Smith looked sharp except for a few occasions where he got stepped on by center Eric Heitmann, was intercepted on a tipped ball intended for Michael Crabtree and he was 0-for-5 on third down conversions.
The Frank Gore breakthrough touchdown of 64 total yards was incredible to watch as was the eight-yard Alex Smith touchdown pass to Vernon Davis in the end zone in the first half, but soon after that everything just seemed like the old same old same old if you know what I mean? Going into the second half the 49ers under Alex Smith and offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye played ultra-conservative football in simply insisting on various philosophies that represented in my opinion letís protect the lead and allow the defense to help win the game.
For one we saw Alex Smith move from a spread offense in which he is very successful from his days in college to taking snaps from under center. And then we saw various occasions where it was Alex Smith not hitting his receivers like incompletes to Isaac Bruce and Josh Morgan. Some of Smithís throws seemed overthrown and or not in connection with the receiverís route. A third quarter fumble by Michael Crabtree killed one of the most promising offensive drives into a turnover for the Colts. Alex Smith was sacked twice in the fourth quarter with just over eight minutes left to play and down 18-14 destroying a last ditch effort to squeeze out a victory against the undefeated Indianapolis Colts.
One aspect of the offensive line Iíd like to recognize is the position of left tackle with Joe Staley going out with a sprained knee on the first drive of the game and Barry Sims who was inconsistent last year coming in and locking down that position throughout the rest of the game deserves to be commended. As for the four sacks on Alex Smith that is way too many yet again for a quarterback to sustain any kind of consistent scoring success through the air.
There has to be an effort by offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye and Mike Singletary to come to terms on going after the enemy not to the extent that Mike Martz likes to do as he tried to do last year, but enough that there is some daring and risk to spreading out your opponent and taking full advantage of their soft spots like Alex Smith has proven he can do in the later half of the game against Houston. The weapons of talent are at our disposal yet we insist on running the ball while behind in the score and playing an offensive juggernaut that could explode with no insurance in points of our own to fall back on.
Short passing screens, spread out offenses including shotgun formations, hurry up offense to tire out the opposing defense, two tight end formations to utilize one of the best duoís in the league in Delanie Walker and Vernon Davis and three or four back stepping curls to break pocket containment and throw down the sidelines for first downs in manageable third down situations are in my opinion just what the doctor should prescribe. Jimmy Raye needs to take the gloves off and force change from time to time. He needs to sense the temperament of the opposing defense and attack a lot more down the field.
Three straight losses has registered the fact that we not where we are supposed to be in our development as a well balanced team that can win convincingly against teams with winning records and those especially outside of our division. Although Alex Smith gives us a perceived best chance to win with the remainder of the season on the line, he cannot afford to be inaccurate and inconsistent.
What is my meaning on this? Alex Smith needs to be put in ideal comfortable situations that cater to his strengths rather then his past weaknesses. He needs time behind center to make the 2-3 second accurate throws and he needs to get better at reading and identifying opposing defenses while making adjustments at the line of scrimmage and he has to be able to increase his pass to completion ratio by way of not overthrowing and or under-throwing his intended targets. Smith has to establish his own offensive niche and take it to the next level with complete assurance from Jimmy Raye that it can be accomplished.
Although I am a believer in establishing the run as a precedent for the pass as Mike Singletary is obsessed with, I also recognize the fact that there are situations and games where a Mike Martz type of offense might be absolutely necessary to ensure victory over an opponent as battle savvy as the Indianapolis Colts. With an offensive line as inconsistent and incoherent as we have, coupled with the injuries it has sustained there has to be more thought on attacking through the air to increase third down overall efficiency. The rest of our season depends upon it.
Sources of Information: Mercury News.com, SF Gate.com, Inside Bay Area.com, NFL.com and my own personal analysis and opinion.