Not that they needed it, but backup quarterback Alex Smith going on injured reserve as the 49ers gear up to play the Seattle Seahawks serves as yet another reminder of how important it is to protect the quarterback.
Smith's non-contact shoulder injury has been described as a "freak deal," but nonetheless has its roots in his original dislocated shoulder, caused in week four of the 2007 season when Seattle's Rocky Bernard burst free through the line of scrimmage and buried the former first-round pick.
"The quarterback is the vital position to any team. They run the whole offense and I really admire what they do," said fullback Zak Keasey. "They have a real hard job and put in a lot of extra work so we definitely take pride in trying to protect them the best that we can to make sure something like that doesn't happen."
The Bernard sack may have cost San Francisco their most significant loss '07, but in all, Seattle enjoyed nine sacks total against the 49ers on their way to sweeping the divisional series with two lopsided victories. And the majority came from former 49ers linebacker Julian Peterson who totaled four sacks and twice stripped the ball out from 49ers' quarterbacks.
"We are very familiar with Julian, he's got incredible athleticism, and a great nose for the ball," said center Eric Heitmann. "We know when we play Seattle, that they have a pretty aggressive style of defense. They like to blitz a lot. They are very active. We've got to be very in tune with our protections this week, where the linebackers are at, where they are coming from and we've got to keep our quarterbacks healthy and off the ground."
After giving up four sacks last week to Arizona, two of which produced J.T. O'Sullivan fumbles, the 49ers must be mindful when they face a Seattle defense that forced 49ers quarterbacks to fumble four times in all last year.
"One of the things you can't do is over think it. You have to practice it out here, ball security and doing a good job in protections. I know one of the turnovers was my fault, but I can't over-analyze it," said starting left tackle Joe Staley. "Go back to my techniques and not make it an issue. As far as everybody else, it's just kind of move on and learn what you can from the film and take it day by day."
Following their own poor start, Peterson and his Seattle crew definitely will be gunning for turnovers when they return to their home turf on Sunday.
"The biggest thing is there's got to be a lot more attention to detail and create more plays," said Peterson of week one's loss to Buffalo. "That's the thing – create more opportunities for our offense to have a shorter field. We didn't get enough turnovers or create any turnovers for our offense. So that was the biggest thing for us."
He also might have an eye on Staley, who he took a bit of a shot at in an afternoon press conference with Bay Area reporters.
"For the most part, he looks a lot better than last year. Even last year, I think he was on the right side last year," said Peterson. "Doesn't look very athletic, though."
But protecting O'Sullivan extends beyond Staley and the other four starting linemen, particularly given Seattle's variety of blitz packages.
"As backs we look forward to the opportunity to take on some of their fancy blitzes," said Keasey. "We've got some rules, but really we just try to clean up for whatever the o-line misses, make them right, and protect the quarterback."
Even the receiving corps shoulders some of the responsibility of keeping the quarterback upright.
"I think it's a collective effort," said wide receiver Bryant Johnson. "The receivers have to be on time and where they are supposed to be. The oline has to be good with their hands, and the backs have to be good about picking up pressure, so it's a collective effort and a job for the whole offensive unit to protect the quarterback."
Given it's only to be his second NFL start, Seattle's pressure oriented defense is probably looking at O'Sullivan as fresh meat. It isn't something keeping the 49ers starting quarterback up at night.
"They are going to pressure at certain times, that's how we're expecting it. I don't go into it thinking, 'It's my second start in the league. Oh man, they're going to blitz me a lot,'" said O'Sullivan. "Even if they do blitz me a lot, it doesn't change how I play the game. I go out there and read and react to what I see. If I have to get the ball out of my hands, [I] get the ball out of my hands."
However, not letting the ball get out of his hands and eliminating last week's turnover ridden offensive outing is a concern.
"From now on, after a performance like last Sunday, it's something that we have to emphasize, be conscious of and work on every day and be aware of it," said O'Sullivan. "But, at the same time, we've got to go out there and play football. There's no excuses for those turnovers. They can't happen."
While the front guys pitch in to help prevent strips on passing plays, Johnson said the receivers can help negate interceptions by being disciplined in their routes.
"We have to clean up on our timing," said Johnson. "Last week was the first week, we still had some things to get better on and we are going to try to get better this week. Everything that happened in that game is correctable. It's up to us to get it corrected."
Wednesday's Practice Update: C Eric Heitmann (shoulder) and CB Donald Strickland (knee) were held out of the afternoon session.