Everybody knows Harbaugh has plenty of pull when it comes to the roster, considering he has pulled off such a remarkable resurgence in a matter of months. The 49ers are 11-3 and champions of the NFC West.
"Alex has a great understanding," Harbaugh said about Smith's lack of turnovers. "Experienced player who understands situational football and good football and the difference between holding onto the ball and turning it over. He's also been uncanny in the pocket."
Smith remained poised during Monday night's commanding 20-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in prime time, just three games after he was sacked nine times in a Thanksgiving night flop at Baltimore. He was unfazed when Candlestick Park went dark not once but twice to interrupt Monday's game on the big stage, delaying kickoff and then stopping play early in the second quarter.
"No question, lights out, no pun intended," Smith said of the overall performance.
Smith hardly has the gaudy passing numbers or touchdowns of some of his fellow quarterbacks -- his 2,752 passing yards rank ninth in the NFC, and his 16 touchdowns are good for eighth; he also has been sacked an NFL-high 39 times. Yet Harbaugh points to many other key statistics that go unnoticed but have helped San Francisco return to the playoffs for the first time in nine years. Most notably, Smith takes care of the football.
Smith, who rejoined the 49ers this summer as a free agent on a one-year, $4.9 million deal, owns a 61.4 completion percentage that's sixth in the NFC and has the fewest interceptions with five.
"That's the low-hanging fruit," Harbaugh said. "Just go straight to the yardage line or the touchdown-passes line. I think that people that understand football understand that there's a lot more that goes into the job of a quarterback than those statistics."
Notes: Four-time Pro Bowl LB Patrick Willis hopes to return for Saturday's game at Seattle after missing the last two games with an injured right hamstring. Willis said he has made significant progress in his recovery. ... Harbaugh didn't provide an update on WR Ted Ginn Jr.'s ankle injury. It's not known which ankle Ginn injured while returning a second-half kickoff. ... LT Joe Staley was kicked in one of his shins during the fourth quarter but said he only came out as a precaution. "I'm totally good," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.