I don't know if the San Francisco 49ers can win the NFC West after an 0-5 start, but the insertion of Troy Smith as the starting quarterback makes them the division's most dangerous team in the final seven weeks.
While the thought of a 3-6 team emerging as a powerhouse is laughable on the surface, a close examination of the film reveals an offense capable of terrorizing opponents behind an old-school formula with Smith as a centerpiece.
The 49ers have used a downhill running game complemented by a vertical play-action pass attack to keep opponents off balance. Frank Gore sets the tone and his ability to find creases between the tackles forces defensive coordinators to drop an extra defender in the box. In the past, this tactic would neutralize the effectiveness of the offense because Alex Smith and David Carr were unable to consistently take advantage of one-on-one coverage on the outside. However, Troy Smith punished the Broncos and Rams for leaving the 49ers' receivers singled up on the outside, and the added vertical element has been a counter to defensive coordinators committed to stopping the run.
Against St. Louis, Troy Smith took advantage of an eight-man front to connect with Josh Morgan on a 65-yard bomb that set up the 49ers' first touchdown. In looking at the clip, the 49ers break the huddle in a conventional I-formation with the tight end and flanker aligned to the right. The Rams start in a Cover 2 shell before Oshiomogho Atogwe drops into the box to create a 4-4 look at the line of scrimmage. Smith immediately identifies the single-high safety prior to the snap, and takes a peek outside after executing a slight play-action fake to Gore. With Morgan quickly defeating the press coverage at the line, Smith's fast read and perfect throw result in the big gain.
Smith's ability to deliver the long ball has ignited the offense, but it's his athleticism that has added another dimension to their attack. His ability to come out of the backdoor on bootlegs has forced defensive ends to stay at home or run the risk of giving up the big play on the outside. The 49ers have capitalized on this dilemma by repeatedly running waggle passes to keep the pressure on defensive ends. Smith's 36-yard pass to Delanie Walker is a prime illustration of this approach.
In breaking down the play, the 49ers lined up in up an Ace formation out of their 12 personnel package (one back, two tight ends and two receivers) with a slot to the left. Gore is in a dot position behind the quarterback. On the snap, Smith fakes the stretch to the left before executing a bootleg to his right. Walker, who aligned as the tight end on the right, runs a post-corner against Bradley Fletcher on the backside. Smith rolls to his right and drops in a perfect teardrop over Walker's outside shoulder. The combination of run-action and Smith's athleticism has made the waggle pass one of the 49ers' top plays.
Although Smith's skill set has resulted in several scripted plays leading to big gains, his ability to buy extra time in the pocket has been key. Smith can extend plays with his feet, which allows his receivers to shake free from tight coverage, and he has been able to identify the open man while on the move.
In taking a look at Smith's 38-yard completion to Vernon Davis against the Rams, his knack for eluding the pass rush allowed his target to get uncovered. While some athletic quarterbacks look to run immediately when the pocket collapses, Smith avoids the temptation and keeps his eyes down the field looking for a receiver to come open. This kind of poise and patience is uncommon for a quarterback with only four career starts.