Quarterback Alex Smith of the San Francisco 49ers has finally seen enough of the light after a disappointing start to his career to be among the top half of quarterbacks in the NFL. That's great for Smith and for first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh, who rolled the dice on his own ability to help Smith become an above-average pro quarterback.
What Smith has been missing is elite and efficient targets in the passing game — while he ranks 17th among qualifying quarterbacks in Football Outsiders' metrics, no 49ers receiver ranks higher than 75th, and that's where supposed someday franchise receiver Michael Crabtree stands. At least tight end Vernon Davis is in the top 10 at his position!
So, as a result, Smith and Harbaugh have had to adopt, adapt, and improve. Against the Browns, the 49ers used a couple of different targets to help facilitate a 20-10 win. In the first quarter, there was this pass to left tackle (and former Central Michigan tight end) Joe Staley:
Nice play call there! Run the unbalanced line slide to the right, and throw the tackle eligible to the left. And kudos to the aforementioned receivers for their downfield blocks. The big man can still move a little bit, can't he?
And then, in the fourth quarter, this little fullback pass to defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga:
As our friend Rich Eisen likes to say, "BIG MAN WITH FOOTBALL!!!" The 49ers have used Sopoaga as a fullback in certain power packages before, but this was the first time we have seen him flare out and catch a pass.
The NFL had better watch out for these 49ers. Not only are they running away with the NFC West at 6-1, but they're also playing tough and having fun.