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SJMN: Purdy: Weaknesses exposed in 49ers' passing game


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My guess is the 49er's could get Norv back for cheap...

By Mark Purdy

Mercury News


PITTSBURGH - More yards. But fewer points.

More passing. But fewer touchdowns.

More offensive creativity. But a loss.

There. Does that satisfy all you critics of the 49er play-calling?

We know the answer, don't we? The answer is no. True happiness and satisfaction will not occur until the Scarlet Heroes of Yore go back to winning 14 or 15 games a season while averaging 35 points and three touchdown passes per game.

Friends, get real. You will still be waiting quite a while for those 49er days to return. You must learn to deal with the present. And in the present, the 49ers are neither horrible nor great. And their best chance to win is the way they won in the season's first two weeks - by giving the ball to Frank Gore early and often. It's not spectacular. But effective.

And if Gore is stopped by an opponent? We saw Sunday what happens. The 49er playbook opens up. And the passing game blooms. With fragrant, wild inconsistency.

"We'll learn from this and get better," head coach Mike Nolan said.

But there were no shocking lessons to learn, really. The truth is, we finally had the chance to see this developing 49er team compete against a very good NFL opponent - from the stronger AFC - in a road game.

The result was a 21-point loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. That's a surprise? Yes, it could have been closer. Probably should have been. There was a goofy rules interpretation that cost the 49ers a probable score -


but not a victory.

Pittsburgh has won 13 of its past 14 games against NFC opponents. The Steelers have given up just one touchdown in their past 32 defensive possessions. Were the 49ers going to overcome those overwhelming statistical trends? No.

To be sure, it was refreshing and fun to see the 49ers' offense open up and give quarterback Alex Smith more freedom to roll out and roam. But what we discovered is this: Smith and his receivers have a lot of work to do in terms of reading coverages - or at least, reading them in the same language. Several passes were dropped. One was intercepted. But more often, Smith's deliveries were a yard or two outside - or inside - his receivers.

Was that the fault of Smith? Or his receivers for running faulty routes? Smith diplomatically declined to say. So did Nolan.

"I'm going to put it on both of them right now, just to be fair to everyone, until we look at the film," Nolan said.

Jim Hostler, the 49er offensive coordinator, didn't seem inclined to put the blame on Smith. You can read into that whatever you want.

"Alex played his ass off today," Hostler said. "He stepped up in a pressure situation. Every week, there are going to be four or five plays where the quarterback doesn't do it exactly right. But you learn and try to get it right the next time. He managed the game much better. The pressure from Pittsburgh ... that defense is one of the best in the league."

Hostler, to his credit, was also open and honest about his unit's flaws. He began with the fact that in the first quarter, the 49er offense made two trips inside the red zone but produced only two field goals.

"The red zone's killing us," Hostler said. "We're not producing touchdowns. We've got to get that rectified. We're taking shots and we're not hitting them."

Right. But why? The 49ers offense has so many young moving parts - a 23-year-old quarterback, a second-year tight end, a rookie at right tackle - that the temptation is to simply shrug your shoulders and sigh. Watching the 49er offense is a little like watching someone try to assemble a car while the car is moving at full speed down the interstate. Some of the parts are fitting better than others.

Hostler didn't like that analogy, however. To him, it's more a matter of the right parts not functioning more efficiently more often. There was more diversity Sunday, for certain, including a double reverse and a few downfield throws on first down. But that was the plan all along.

"You're not going to pound the ball against Pittsburgh and gain yards," Hostler said. "People will say, 'They moved the quarterback more today.' Well, we had the same amount of movement in the game plan last week. But the situations just didn't present themselves. Maybe we're going to look back and say, 'Well, we shouldn't have moved him that much, or we should have moved him differently on this play . . . ' "

Or maybe it is just that Smith's receivers need to move toward the ball with better hands. Davis, the tight end who had respectfully asked Nolan for more passes to be thrown his way, had that wish granted Sunday. But Davis let one ball clang off his mitts and other times . . . well, either he did not go exactly where Smith expected, or Smith did not throw exactly where Davis expected him to throw.

Asked directly about Davis' day, Nolan said: "I thought he did OK. . . . But at the same time remember this: Make sure you're ready so that when it comes . . . you know, don't cry about the ball and then not catch the ball."

If the 49ers did learn something Sunday, they won't drop the ball next Sunday against Seattle. More yards are nice. More wins in the division are better.

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