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49ers must play complementary football
Each week, Chad Pennington breaks down a dynamic NFL playmaker or scheme, devises a game plan and discusses a strategy for success. This week, Pennington looks into how 49ers quarterback Alex Smith should approach the Bucs' defense. Meanwhile, former defensive standout John Lynch breaks down how the Bears can contain Lions wideout Calvin Johnson.
Quarterbacks have to live with them every day. And while it comes with the territory, it’s never easy.
San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith knows that all too well. He’s been hearing it ever since the 49ers made him the No. 1 pick in the 2005 NFL Draft.
It certainly doesn’t help much that the 49ers haven’t had a winning record since that time. But I’m sure another article can be written on why that has happened. In the NFL, losing produces critics, and winning cures multiple ailments.
Last week, however, in the fourth game of his seventh season, Smith had what has to be considered his most impressive victory as a pro, rallying the 49ers from a 20-point, second-half deficit for an impressive road win over Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles. The 49ers left with a 3-1 record and positioned themselves atop the NFC West standings. Talk about something to build on.
My assignment this week: Game plan for Smith and the 49ers against Tampa Bay.
Smith experienced a concept in the second half against the Eagles that the great teams do consistently. He and the 49ers played complementary football. In our world of statistics and fantasy football, we are made to believe that large numbers and statistics win football games. I beg to differ. Real football games are won when the statistics complement the situations, and all three parts of the team make impact plays when desperately needed.
I’ll explain. If looking at pure statistics, the numbers may suggest that Vick and the Eagles won the game. The Birds produced 513 total yards, averaging 7.5 yards per play and won the time of possession battle. Vick threw for 416 yards with two touchdowns, while DeSean Jackson had 171 receiving yards. However, with 9:30 left in the third quarter and trailing by 20, San Francisco put together two long scoring drives mixed with a defensive three-and-out. With 2:58 left, it was a six-point ballgame. How did this happen so quickly? Complementary football. The Niners’ offense and defense complemented each other by stepping up and making big plays at critical times.
After the Eagles failed to play complementary football in the fourth quarter, with two missed field goals after long drives, the 49ers discovered what it meant to be complementary once again. Smith drove the Niners down the field with 6:28 left, and Frank Gore scored the game-winning touchdown with 3:05 remaining. The mission was not complete, however. Justin Smith and the defense forced a Jeremy Maclin fumble, and Gore sealed the win with multiple first downs to run out the clock. Mission complete.
Coach Jim Harbaugh said, “You don’t have many 20-point comebacks as a quarterback. And when you do, that’s definitely a character builder for the football team, for the quarterback, for everybody.”
I have experienced a pivotal win like that myself. Sometimes it doesn’t have to be a comeback. It can be a win when the critics said you had no chance. In 2008, our Miami Dolphins team was 2-4. We played the 5-1 Buffalo Bills in Week 8, and the critics gave us no shot. However, the 25-16 victory gave us the quiet confidence we needed. We won eight of the next nine games and the AFC East divison title! And guess what? These games were won by playing complementary football, too.
For Smith, this can be a pivotal moment for him. Smith has taken his share of criticism throughout his NFL career. But I respect him for not losing his competitive fire and will to win. It could be easy for him to say, “I have had six offensive coordinators, multiple surgeries and entered the league as a 21-year-old rookie.” But I haven’t heard those excuses.
According to his agent, Tom Condon, Alex could have decided to seek an opportunity to play elsewhere. But he had unfinished business to take care of in San Francisco. Knowing his supporting cast and believing in Harbaugh’s solid staff, Smith wants to finish what was started seven years ago.
Let’s examine the challenge for Smith and the Niners against the Tampa Bay defense. The Bucs have the youngest team in the NFL. However, don’t let the youth fool you. Coach Raheem Morris has a defense that is fast and aggressive and likes to play man coverage.
For San Francisco, this style of defense will provide numerous opportunities for one-on-one coverage. There are plenty of playmakers on the 49ers’ roster beginning with Gore, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree. Add Joshua Morgan, Delanie Walker and Kendall Hunter, and I’m sure Smith will feel comfortable that the Niners can move the football.
The first concern for the San Francisco offense will be the pass rush. In the Monday night win against the Colts, the Bucs found success when pressuring Curtis Painter with five defenders. Painter completed only 2 of 11 passes against five-man pressure with a sack and a fumble as well. On the other hand, Painter had success against a four-man pass rush, passing for 255 yards and two touchdowns. The 49ers must find ways to block the Bucs’ athletic and aggressive defensive linemen and handle the fifth rusher, who will be a blitzing linebacker or nickel back.
Smith has an important hand in this as well. First, Smith must be able to find his hot receiver if a defender is unblocked. A hot receiver is considered a receiver who shortens his route when a defender is not counted for in the protection. Secondly, when under pressure, Smith must be able to protect the football and then deliver it on time. Two hands on the football while in the pocket is critical to eliminating strip sacks. Likewise, when a quarterback holds the ball too long, he is just as responsible for the sack as the offensive line is. Pass protection is a total team effort.
The second goal for the Niners’ offense involves the wide receivers, tight ends and running backs. San Francisco’s skill positions must be able to beat man coverage on a consistent basis. If the Bucs’ defense wins these one-on-one matchups, it will be a long and ugly day for the 49ers’ offense. Conversely, there can be good numbers posted if solid, crisp routes are run and good, accurate throws are made. Tampa Bay is surrendering 267 passing yards per game, which is proof it can be done.
Finally, always know where Bucs veteran Ronde Barber is. After 16 years, this guy still can play. When he plays off coverage, he reads the footwork of the quarterback really well. His vision enables him to jump the route of the receiver even before he breaks.
In the end, play complementary football as a team, and the critics will have to compliment Smith and the 49ers on another impressive victory!
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