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49ers Offense Continues to Improve


Alex Smith clinched his first division title and first playoff appearance after the last time he faced the St. Louis Rams at Candlestick Park.

Though the 49ers quarterback won't be able to wear a playoff cap after the game, nor can he clinch consecutive playoff appearances when the Rams visit Candlestick Park this Sunday, Smith still aims to continue playing at a high level like he did in a 24-3 win over Arizona on "Monday Night Football."

Smith's 18 of 19, three-touchdown performance earned him NFC Player of the Week honors, the first such award in the quarterback's eight seasons with the 49ers.

But it's not just Smith who continues to grow in his second year working with respected offensive coordinator Greg Roman, the entire offensive unit has taken tremendous strides with a greater understanding of the playbook and more plays at its disposal.

When St. Louis (3-5) visits this Sunday, San Francisco's entire offense hopes to continue its recent production.

Entering the year, the 49ers (6-2) envisioned a balanced offensive attack, one that was able to convert on crucial third downs as well as in tight red zone situations.

So far, the unit has risen to the occasion.

In 2011, the 49ers ranked 30th and 31st in red zone touchdown efficiency and third-down conversions, respectively. This year however, the offense is ranked No. 7 and No. 19 in those same categories through nine weeks of the season.

Smith hasn't checked up on how the offense has progressed in the two areas. Instead, he's taking a day-by-day approach.

"I haven't looked at that stuff enough," Smith admitted. "You're just trying to go out there and play down-in and down-out. I think it really starts staying ahead of the chains, not getting in bad third-down situations. Third-and-short's a lot easier than third-and-long.

"And same in the red zone, just a matter of executing down there. Just looking to get better and better obviously. Right in the middle of it right now, so just trying to take the right steps."

First down seems to be the real key for San Francisco.

On the down, the 49ers have gained four-or-more yards on 132 of 229 first-down plays (57.6 percent), ranking first in the NFL.

It's noticeable to the players, too.

"We always talking about trying to get in manageable third downs and I think we've done a good job of getting positive plays on those first and second downs to get in manageable situations," fullback Bruce Miller said.

Added perimeter weapons (Mario Manningham and Randy Moss) have also helped the offense's production.

If it's not one of the two wideouts, Michael Crabtree or Moss, the 49ers have a plethora of weapons to find in the red zone, as well as on key third downs.

"Love getting everybody involved, for sure," Smith said. "That kind of goes into all this, get down there and give them a lot to think about, not predictable. Everybody's got to get their hand in there and makes it tough on the defense."

First-down production is one thing, but familiarity with each other and Roman's play-calling is also paying off in a big way.

"We have a lot of confidence in our schemes and our plays, I just think we're still working to get chemistry down there and build on what we've installed," Miller added. "I think we have a lot of work to do, but we're getting there.

"All the weapons we have puts pressure on the defense on which direction they're going to go and where they're going to put the strength of their defense. We're able to take advantage of other areas of the defense."

With options, comes answers and, more importantly, confidence.

All that bodes well for a San Francisco club on an 11-game home winning streak against NFC West foes, the longest active streak in the NFL according to ESPN.

Smith, personally, enters Sunday's matchup with St. Louis on a hot streak against a Rams team that has dropped seven of its last eight contests against the 49ers.

In two games against St. Louis last season, Smith completed 37 of 53 passes for 487 yards with three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 117.4 quarterback rating. Those were Smith's best touchdown and passer ratings against NFC West opponents last season.

The Rams enter the 126th all-time meeting between the longtime rivals with an improved defense under first-year coach Jeff Fisher. Through the midpoint of the season, St. Louis ranks tied for 13th in total defense (343.0 yards per game) and 17th against the pass (237.5 yards per game).

Knowing how much the Rams have improved in a short period, Smith expects Sunday's NFC West matchup to be a tough battle, especially in the trenches where St. Louis ranks 12th and 13th in sacks and rush defense, respectively.

"They're good," Smith said. "Good across the board. It starts up front, really good D-line. Lot of guys that can make plays and win one-on-one. Very good at the linebacker level and then got a lot better in the secondary as well with the two new corners. Playing good football."

Smith added that the 49ers will have to be prepared for disguise coverages from new cornerback Cortland Finnegan. It's a similar style of defense that gave Smith trouble in an uncharacteristic three-interception performance against the New York Giants.

The 49ers quarterback continues to feel more at ease against the league's tougher pass defenses with so many weapons at his side.

After Moss' 47-yard touchdown catch against the Cardinals earned national notoriety, Smith pointed out how the veteran wide receiver has created openings for other perimeter playmakers by occupying multiple defenders.

"Even me as a quarterback, I don't play that position, but yeah, you watch (his) work ethic, you watch the little things that go on day in and day out and he's been a great example of that," Smith said. "It's not just showing up on gameday. For people that think that, it's not how it works. The guy just comes in and work, day in and day out, takes a lot of pride in what he does, run and pass. I think that's been great."

With the growing production in key game situations and a greater comfort level with his weapons, Smith is ready for the "huge" games left on the 49ers schedule, beginning with this week's matchup with St. Louis.

"You hope you're playing you're best football come November and December," Smith said. "You hope as the season goes on, you're playing better and better."

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