Walcoff: Niners regroup after hard loss

Alex Smith smiled when I asked him last week how he was going to deal with opposing teams’ predictable strategy to beat the 49ers: Stack the box to bottle up Frank Gore and then chase Smith down with a barrage of blitzes. “Most NFL teams look to stuff the run and then get after the quarterback,” said Smith, who spoke confidently about the 49ers’ ability to respond to their season-opening debacle in Seattle.

Even with Monday’s frustrating loss to the New Orleans Saints, San Francisco reaffirmed its identity as a hard-hitting defense, albeit with suspect coverage skills, and a power running team that can also strike quickly through the air. It’s not the offense of Joe Montana and Steve Young, who were on hand for Jerry Rice’s No. 80 retirement ceremony, but Mike Singletary never pretended it would be.

Most importantly, Singletary got his young offensive line to play well against one of the more aggressive pass-rushing teams in the league. For only the second time in two years, the 49ers didn’t give up a sack, thanks in large part to the improved play of rookies Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis.

Oft-criticized offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye also gets credit for his clever use of counter running plays. Time after time, the Saints flowed away from Gore, whose cutback moves kept defenders off balance. Most reassuring, Smith looked poised under pressure, scrambling for two key first downs and completing four of five passes in his final drive, plus a perfect throw to Vernon Davis for the game-tying two-point conversion.

Certainly the 49ers didn’t “Stop Drew Brees,” as Singletary foolishly boasted, but at least defensive coordinator Greg Manusky mixed up his coverages well enough to slow him down. Unfortunately, Manusky insisted on using Patrick Willis almost exclusively in coverage. The seemingly unstoppable Willis sacked Brees in one of his two first-half blitzes, but was rarely turned loose after that.

The coaching staff also takes a hit for not having rookie Phillip Adams practice fielding punts at Candlestick Park before playing a game there. Prior 49ers regimes regularly took new return men to the ’Stick to acclimate to windy, nighttime conditions they can’t simulate in Santa Clara. Adams’ muffed punt deep in 49ers’ territory in the fourth quarter gave the Saints three points, which of course proved to be their margin of victory.

With the next two games on the road, the challenge is obvious. San Francisco’s young offensive line must prove it can play as well in loud, hostile environments, (Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium and Atlanta’s Georgia Dome) and Smith has to build on a performance that Young called “transformational.” It may still be early in the season, but it’s getting late for Smith to show he is more than a good one-night stand.

 

Quarterback quandary

Even if Tom Cable announces today that Jason Campbell will keep his starting job for Sunday’s game in Arizona, how do the Raiders make Campbell feel any more comfortable with their decision than he looks playing behind such a harried offensive line?

Against the Rams, Campbell completed only two of seven passes to wide receivers for all of 12 yards with two fumbles and an interception before being replaced at halftime. Bruce Gradkowski is clearly better suited to thrive against the pressure defenses the Raiders will surely see each week.

Cable says playing both veterans doesn’t mean there’s a quarterback controversy in Oakland. That contention usually lasts about a week. Then again, maybe Gradkowski is being groomed to be the closer. Don’t be surprised if he warms up at the first sign of trouble.

KGO (810 AM) Sports Director Rich Walcoff can be heard weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m. on the KGO morning news. He can be reached at RichWalcoff@gmail.com.

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