FanPost

Alex Smith preview for 2013: Is he ready for the challenge? (All-22 film analysis)

John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

From the FanPosts -Joel

Much has been said already on this site and many other sites about the acquisition of Alex Smith. Many people have made posts about analytics, trends and other polemics to defend the Smith move. This post will not be about that. This is a preview for the upcoming season.

It is my hope that readers will use it as a guide to view Alex Smith when they watch him this season. In my opinion, Andy Reid will undertake a task to try and let Alex Smith play a free style of quarterback that will mentally challenge him to make throws he was less likely to make. Not only that, to instill a new air of confidence in a recently trafficked castoff. Don't take my word for it. Andy Reid:

"Now he has another opportunity to get himself into an offense where he gets to pull the trigger in a lot of different areas."

With the addition of Andy Reid, Chris Ault and Brad Childress, there should be a lot of different areas and situations where he will figure to do as such.

Reid to Alex mic'd up (at 9:45):

"You can do whatever you want. You got the keys to the car."

There are many quotes along this line of thinking. It has become increasingly clear since the acquisition of Alex Smith that he was not brought here to be a "game manager." Reid and Dorsey would never give up 2 second round picks for that vision. They see something in Alex Smith that is not only present there but also yet to be unlocked. A side of Alex that was on display at times but also suppressed, whether internally or externally.

In order to go about this preview, I want to analyze the two most important/competitive games of Alex's career: his two career playoff games in 2012 vs the Giants and Saints. I want to compare and contrast the style of play and the confidence to make throws in different situations. I will use All-22 film and GIFs to go about this.

Let's get started.

Topopcorn_medium

#######################################################################

49ers vs GIANTS NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME (1/27/2012)

########################################################################

Perhaps I should preface by saying that the inspiration behind this piece was initially brought about by this thought provoking article by Greg Cosell. It was perhaps awkward--or perhaps well timed juxtaposition-- from his previous piece about Alex Smith from the Saints game last week. In this section, I will quote his findings from film and analyze them and other plays that I find interesting as such.

PLAY 1

Here is what Cosell wrote about this play:

Let’s start with the first 3rd down of the game. It was 3rd and 4; the 49ers had already gotten 1 first down. Michael Crabtree ran a sail route (kind of a flattened corner route). He was wide open. Smith, with no pressure in the pocket, did not pull the trigger. It was a throw that had to be made. The result of the play was an incompletion on a late check down to Frank Gore.

Let's take a look the play using All-22 film to see what he sees.

Base_formation_medium

This is the set up for the play as above.

Result_medium

Micheal Crabtree is the receiver in the red circle. I have tried to time this picture with right when he gets out of his break. You can see Alex is looking at him (especially when looking from the back camera from the All-22) and he does not pull the trigger. I agree with Cosell's assessment that Alex was passive on this opportunity and it is reasonable to think that this throw could have been made. He decided to take the safer option and give it to Gore. Let's see if this trend continues.

PLAY 2

Base_play_medium

Here is the setup for the next play.

Right_before_he_runs_vernon_davis_wide_open_on_medium

On this play, Alex's 1st read is as above. It is not a great option to throw. It is a throw that can be made but I can certainly see the case for not throwing it. After this play, Alex dashes left and gets brought down short of the 1st down marker. The protection, however, was suitable enough to keep going through progressions. This is something Alex can do and has shown he can do. However, it is my opinion that he sometimes relies on his legs too much and will bail sooner than he has too. Vernon Davis runs a great route and would have been open if he kept looking. This is a sort of hesitancy on Alex's part and he felt that running was the best way to pick up the 1st down. Had Alex had more confidence and gone through his progressions, he could have scored a potential touchdown. I don't mean to be nitpicky, as all great QBs miss open players often enough. However, it happened often enough in this game that it warrants mentioning as an area of improvement.

PLAY 3

Base_set_medium

Here is the initial setup for the play.

Where_he_runs_medium

In this shot, I have paused right when Alex decides to quit going through his progressions and decided to run up the middle. From this shot, you can see that the protection is adequate and there is no need to bail on the play. You could get a sense throughout the game that the Giants' pass rush was starting to affect Alex and leading him to make more plays with his feet--many of which became sacks.

Dosen_t_stay_long_enough_play_develops_more_db_medium

You will see here the receiver open up shortly after Alex decides to enter the pile of 300lb men.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

In summarizing his findings, Cosell writes:

These are just a few examples of Smith’s tentative and uncertain pocket play last Sunday. The bottom line was this: Smith was reluctant to let it loose on routes and throws that were not only well designed, but were open. They were primary reads. No progressions were involved.

One of the attributes that separates high level quarterback play in big games and critical moments is the willingness to make stick throws into smaller windows. Smith did that with confidence against the Saints. In the NFC Championship game, he was hesitant and cautious on throws that were clearly defined. Simply put, Smith left a lot of plays on the field against the Giants. While Williams publicly shouldered the burden of defeat, it was his quarterback who failed to deliver on the promise he had shown a week earlier.

Up until now, the classic Alex Smith narrative of being a "game-manager" and "Captain Checkdown" rings more true than ever. The hesitancy, the lack of trust in his arm, lack of bravado to make key plays on 3rd downs.

However, what is the validity to this claim? How many people thought we acquired a QB that was near perfect? The fact of the matter was that Cosell is writing a piece to make a point. I respect his thoughts but when I watched the rest of the film, I didn't notice as many examples of such hesitancy that I would have thought. I included ones that I thought were significant. Alex had a few inaccurate throws, including a key one that could have gone deep and another one off an easy to pass to a RB. These are certainly on Smith but they happen over the course of the game. Alex has shown in the 2012 season that accuracy is not the issue.

What I noticed during the game was a defense from the Giants that outmatched the 49ers offense. Their defensive line was probably better--especially against the pass--than the 49ers O-line. The Super Bowl Champions also had a secondary that seemingly answered every question the 49ers could provide receiver-wise save the excellent play of Vernon Davis.

However, did Alex prove incapable of overcoming these problems? Did he prove hesitant the whole game? Let's take a look...

PLAY 1

Base_right_after_motion_out_medium

Here Vernon Davis (2nd receiver counting from the bottom) motions to the left.

Right_off_the_throw_medium

This is the view right as Alex releases the ball. Smith throws a well timed throw without hesitation to Vernon Davis. To be fair, Davis had thoroughly beaten his man but there was a safety up top that could snatch a ball that was not on target. Smith fit it right where Davis could get it and avoid the interception. Check it out in motion below:

2nkwl_medium

You can see how it fits right into Davis' chest.

PLAY 2

2nkwa_medium

This play certainly won't be put on any highlight reel. The context of this throw came on the 49ers sole offensive possession in OT. The first down play was a dead play from the beginning where Alex had nothing to do with the ball. The second play was a terrible read option type run that ended up going for a loss of yards.

Here, Alex was forced to make a play on 3rd and 12.

To me, this play is just below with the Saints game-winner in terms of quality and difficulty and was so nearly a play that was about to extend a Super Bowl earning drive. He passes for 11 yards but Vernon Davis (of course, who else) is unable to get any yards after contact. His route is exactly 1 yard short of a first down and Alex is forced to leave the field and watch his team get beaten. Alex is about to be hit in the back and there is no one open save the check down. He throws it in to TIGHT double coverage and gets it dead on. You can't ask for much more.

##################################################################

49ers vs SAINTS NFC DIVISION GAME 1/14/2012

##################################################################

As you all know, this was Alex's breakout game. It may appear to be selective that I analyze this game but you can't produce excuses for those who are doing things like this in the playoffs. His Giants' game was not as flashy so this is a look at a more free Alex.

PLAY 1

2o4qf_medium

Another great play by Alex. He executes his first read well and puts the ball right where Davis can get. He has to fit it right in between the safety. Again notice the lack of hesitancy and willingness to make the deep throw over the safer slant route available to him and the checkdown to the left.

PLAY 2

2o4vi_medium

Here Vernon Davis runs a route towards the sideline and Alex gives him a chance to make a play. There was no hesitation and the touch on the ball was great.

2o4uc_medium

This GIF just shows the nice touch on the ball. He delivers it right on his chest where only he can Davis can get it. It is an impressive throw with all things considered and not a throw you usually see him make.

PLAY 3

Let's see what Cosell writes about this play first:

Let’s look at the 3 game-changing throws. The first came with 3:14 remaining in the fourth quarter. The 49ers had base personnel on the field: 2 backs, 2 wide receivers and tight end Vernon Davis. Davis was split outside the numbers, the single receiver to the short side of the field. Throughout the game the Saints had played a high percentage of man coverage, including many snaps of "cover zero", with no deep safety in the middle of the field. The defender matched on Davis in these man coverage concepts was one of two safeties, Roman Harper, in "man free" coverage, or Malcolm Jenkins, in "cover zero".

On this play, it was "cover zero": Davis on the outside versus Jenkins, a tight end on a safety. Davis ran right by Jenkins on a go route, and Smith, knowing blitz pressure was coming, laid the ball out beautifully for a 37 yard gain. Smith had to quicken his drop, plant his back foot and turn it loose. It was a big time throw, and it set-up a touchdown.

2o4rz_medium

This is roughly the same play executed before on the opposite side. Only difference is that Davis lines up out wide. The same excellent touch on the previous ball carries over here. Alex handles the blitz well knowing exactly what he wants to do, an area he has improved on over the past few years.

2o4st_medium

The coverage wasn't that great but the pass was right on target and he gave Davis a chance to make the play.

PLAY 4

Here Cosell notes:

Let’s fast forward to the final minute of the game. The 49ers trailed by 3. 40 seconds remained on the clock. The ball was on the San Francisco 33 yard line. The 49ers had Davis in the inside slot on the 3 receiver side. Again the Saints played man coverage. This time it was "man free" with a single deep safety in the middle. Jenkins, a corner at Ohio State, was again matched on Davis. Jenkins, playing his help over the top, tried to undercut the in-breaking route. The window to deliver the ball was small. Smith put the ball right on Davis’ hands. The precise ball location allowed Davis to run after the catch. 47 yards later, the 49ers were in field goal range.

2o4th_medium

Alex throws the ball right on point and again fits the ball in such that Davis can keep running.

2o4uo_medium

Alex can hit the receiver right on the chest consistently.

PLAY 5

Cosell writes about the last throw:

Smith was not finished. 14 seconds on the clock. It was third down from the 14 yard line, and the 49ers were playing to win in regulation. Smith was in the shotgun, Davis was in the left slot. The Saints played zone coverage. It was a 2 deep look but it was condensed given the shorter field in the red zone. Smith had to beat safety Harper with his throw, so anticipation was absolutely critical. He had to throw early so that Harper’s break on the ball would not force an incompletion, or interception.

Smith pulled the trigger before Davis ran by the underneath defender, linebacker Scott Shanle. He threw to a spot based on precise timing. It was as good as it gets. The catch was great, but the throw was special. A heartbeat later, and the winning touchdown does not happen. It was that close. It was the throw that should be celebrated.

2o4us_medium

This should be known as The Throw. Alex really slung this one right where it needed to be. Smith has no hesitation and goes for the win over the safe tie. There is a chance for interception here if not done right. When Smith is given the chance, he can make plays.

2pr5n_medium

The ball glides with such a tight spiral.

___

As you can imagine, many observers were surprised by Alex's bravado and ability in this game. Cosell states it well:

Despite the outstanding job done by the 49ers defense, San Francisco trailed twice in the final 4 minutes of the game. And that’s when the game belonged to Alex Smith. Sooner or later, in playoff football in today’s NFL, the quarterback must make difficult throws in critical moments. Based on my 16 game study of Smith this season, in which I had evaluated every throw he made, in all situations, I did not believe Smith would make those throws. Against the Saints, he did.

....

3 throws in the final 3½ minutes. All 3 came from the pocket. Each demanded quick decision making, timing, anticipation and accuracy, attributes necessary for high level quarterback play in game-deciding situations. For the first time in his career the burden of playoff victory was placed on Alex Smith, and he was outstanding.

Of course, he would go on to rip Alex for the Giant's game where he believes Alex reverted back to his regular season form. We have already discussed this point above.

##################################################################

IMPORTANCE OF TRUSTING HIS RECEIVERS

##################################################################

Before any of you move on and read more, what was the common thread to all of Alex's highlight reel throws? Think for a moment who was catching the ball. Who was able to get separation regularly? If not getting separation, who was making tough catches in traffic?

Odd, right? 49ers had Michael Crabtree, an emerging young receiver, right?

Turns out Crabtree was not far from Jon Baldwin status in San Fransico and it is no surprise why. He was terrible. Don't take my word for it. He had multiple drops in the Saints game alone.

2o4r5_medium

Here is a simple slant route where Crabtree is asked to simply catch the ball and get tackled. He bobbles the ball and it is now 3rd and 10.

2o4rs_medium

Does this route look familiar? He gets jammed at the LOS but fights off just enough to get blanketed by his DB Sean Smith style and gets ZERO separation and then can't latch his fingers on the ball.

It became increasingly clear throughout this review that Alex did not trust his other receivers to make plays and that he would let it loose with Vernon Davis regularly.For those saying Alex likes to throw to TEs, I would respond by saying he didn't have much where else to throw.

Dwayne Bowe should figure to be that guy this year. It should be noted that we have a different type of receiving crew this year than Alex has had. We have a lot more fast guys with Avery, McCluster, Charles and Davis. I figure these guys to be more involved in the short passing game though.

Also, for those decrying the Fasano signing, I also figure him to be one of those guys this year. He has great hands and a reliable route runner. Kelce and Moaki will also help but Fasano has proven as a reliable catcher that can be thrown to into tight coverage.

SIDE NOTE: For those decrying Baldwin as a bust, look at Crabtree as a player with similar issues. It wasn't until his 3rd year that he even remotely lived up to expectation and until his 4th season that he was able to finnaly showcase his skills. Crabtree was finally able to put to get a pretty good season. Add in that Baldwin is not as injury prone and there may be something to work with.

##################################################################

CURTAIN THEORY

##################################################################

Some curtains are simple. You simply slide them over and the sun is revealed.

Some seem to adapt well to all weather conditions well and are low maintenance, allowing just enough sun in but not too much.

Some need to be cleaned all the time even though they look beautiful.

Others are hard to get just right. They are multi-layered and finding that right balance will allow for that perfect living room setting.

1812-curtains_jpg_medium

What does this have to do with anything?

The fact of the matter is that Alex Smith is not that fancy perfect curtain from Dillards (Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning)

He is not that high maintenance boom or bust type of curtain (Cam Newton etc..)

He is a multi-layered curtain that can a) look like ok by covering all the layers b) look awful when all of the curtain are pulled c) look just right when you have layered it just the right way.

Check out what Alex said on the first day of Chiefs training camp this year.

"I’m much better equipped to handle it now," Smith said. "When you’re a young guy and coming in and playing early, I dwelled on (negative things) too much. I let it affect my play too much. I tried to please everybody.

"I’m going to play my game. I’m going to try to work as hard as I can to get as good as I can and try to reach my potential and win a bunch of games. That’s the goal. I’m not worried about a bunch of other things."

Alex Smith came in as the #1 overall pick and was expected to carry the team on his back a la Andrew Luck style. It didn't work out well. There were many other factors involved too.

Later on, Alex grew into a 49ers team that seemed to outgrow him. The emphasis on the run game and defense led Alex to a suffocated role of being a bystander in a self-propelling machine of smash-mouth football.

I had the honor to talk a bit with Andrew Carroll , from Niners Nation and AP lurker, and he told me his thoughts on Alex's hesitancy and playing conditions. He writes:

Harbaugh came in and taught Alex to play safe football. This is well-documented. Alex was told that sacks are better than interceptions, and a dump off on 3rd and 8 that picks up 5 yards is better than "forcing" something for a potential first down. This is the SAME WAY Harbaugh played football back in his days as an NFL quarterback. Harbaugh knows it can work, and can win games, but he also knows it has its limits.

In my opinion, this is precisely why Alex was so confused over the Kaepernick take-over. Because Kaepernick was going out there and taking risks and just playing football. The 49ers have a good enough TEAM that they can afford a quarterback to do that. It wasn't like the 2011 squad, where Alex's safe play was, really, the only way to win a game.
Alex said, "I feel like the only thing I did to lose my job was get a concussion." In other words, Harbaugh never came up to Alex, at any point, and said, "Hey, we like the safe play... but we REALLY need you to take more deep shots. To be more aggressive. I want our offense to be more explosive. So it's okay if you throw a pick or two. Just go out there and play a bit more aggressive. Don't be afraid of the tight windows."
Kaepernick came in and made quite a number of silly mistakes. Some bad interceptions, some questionable decisions, etc. The run game took a dip under Kaepernick. But, without doubt, the offense as a whole was much more explosive.
It seems to me Alex was never approached with the possibility of making the offense more explosive. He feels he was playing football exactly as Harbaugh taught him to play it; and yet he was then replaced for no reason. Hence the confusion over, "I feel like the only thing I did to lose my job was get a concussion." Alex's play was always advertised to him as exactly what Harbaugh wanted. When it turned out Harbaugh actually wanted a full pistol offense with Kap and the deep ball, Alex was confused.

The truth is that... the San Francisco offense was never really Alex's offense. Even when Harbaugh told him it was, that was likely a lie. Harbaugh is a great coach, but he's not above a lie to help the team win. In fact, that's part of what makes him a great coach. The best in the league, in my opinion. The truth is that Harbaugh has been building this offense with Kaepernick in mind from the start; and he has been waiting, itching, CRAVING the day to put HIS GUY in. The Alex Smith Era was ALWAYS MEANT to end, regardless of what Harbaugh might have said to Smith.
Reid knows this -- which is why he keeps reiterating that he is going to let Alex "open things up" and "pull the trigger." Reid believes in Alex, I think; even more than Harbaugh did. Reid wants Alex to know that it's okay for him to throw an interception. That this is HIS offense. He "has the keys", as Reid put it. Reid wants Alex to know he trusts him explicitly to be able to go out and make a few mistakes, crack a few eggs, to get that metaphorical winning omelet (terrible metaphor!).
The nice thing is that Alex is so intelligent that he won't make any mental errors, like he did when he was younger. Now that he's learned to play safe, smart ball, he just needs to feel he has the freedom to take a shot at those tight window throws; take a shot deep; etc.
I would say the suspicion you have is spot on, based on my perspective. This is partly where my great faith in Alex lies. I know he's a good fit with Reid, I know he's a talented player, I know he's a leader and well-respected. I know his command of the line, the offense, his understanding of the game, is "elite." The only thing he needs to fix, really, is the lack of aggressiveness. You can't have a sack rate in the 9.0's forever.
Harbaugh simultaneously nurtured Alex in to a winning player while also holding him back. It's an odd paradox. A "dialectic", if you will. I'm really looking forward to the "synthesis" of Smith in 2013 under Reid. I think Chiefs fans are really going to fall in love with the guy once they see him on the field, winning games.

It will be Andy Reid's job to find the right balance between the two extremes. His task will be to morph Alex into a player capable of that loose style of QB that fits tight throws into small windows while simultaneously being safe with the ball and maintain his accuracy.

Andy has seen both sides of Smith and he is ready to take on the job. He drafted offense for the first 3 picks of the 2013 draft and invested a lot of money on retaining Branden Albert and Dwayne Bowe.

This season should have some bumps in the road but we will see what Alex Smith is made of. Can he let loose and make more throws without hesitation? Can he develop trust in our receivers (especially those save Bowe) and let our receivers make a play? Will he regress by the sudden expansion of expectations?

Only one way to find out.

Stay tuned September 8th, 2013.

---Special thanks to Andrew Carroll for helping with this post

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Arrowhead Pride's writers or editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of Arrowhead Pride writers or editors.

X
Log In Sign Up

forgot?
Log In Sign Up

Forgot password?

We'll email you a reset link.

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Forgot password?

Try another email?

Almost done,

Join Arrowhead Pride

You must be a member of Arrowhead Pride to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at Arrowhead Pride. You should read them.

Join Arrowhead Pride

You must be a member of Arrowhead Pride to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at Arrowhead Pride. You should read them.

Spinner

Authenticating

Great!

Choose an available username to complete sign up.

In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.

tracking_pixel_9341_tracker