Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes
This archived news story is available only for your personal, non-commercial use. Information in the story may be outdated or superseded by additional information. Reading or replaying the story in its archived form does not constitute a republication of the story.
**AP Photo/Paul Sakuma**Chrissy Mauck, San Fransisco 49ers Press Writer
This is the year that many believe quarterback Alex Smith will come into his own. For any doubters watching Monday night's exhibition game against the Denver Broncos, they might now be a little more inclined to jump on board the Smith bandwagon.
Although the Broncos handed the 49ers a 17-13 defeat, during Smith's brief playing time, the third-year quarterback commanded his unit on back-to-back scoring drives while completing 4-of-5 passes for 58 yards. More importantly, he exuded an air of confidence particularly on two of those throws. The first came on the opening drive when Smith fired a perfectly thrown ball to Darrell Jackson who was draped by Pro Bowl corner Champ Bailey.
"I definitely feel comfortable with those receivers making tough catches and squeezing those in there," said Smith. "In going against Nate Clements, and those guys at practice, that also makes you better especially with timing routes and ball placements."
That drive eventually stalled in the red zone with the 49ers looking to Joe Nedney for a 37-yard field goal to get them on the board, cutting the touchdown lead Denver took on their opening drive to a four-point difference.
Starting in place of an injured Frank Gore, Maurice Hick's 20-yard scamper moved the 49ers into Denver territory on their next drive.
"We ran that same play before and we just talked about seeing what happened front side," said Hicks who finished with three carries for 30 yards. "Moran Norris and the line did a nice job of blocking, and it was a big hole for me and I just took off."
It was two plays later when Smith fired the ball in between three defenders for a 26-yard strike to Arnaz Battle on an inside post route at the 1-yardline. Even head coach Mike Nolan said he was yelling for Smith to throw it underneath, but his quarterback apparently knew better.
"I saw the guy wide open in the shallow and was screaming ‘throw it there' and all of the sudden he threw it down the middle and I was saying ‘don't, don't' and then, ‘oh, it's a good one,'" recalled Nolan. "Obviously he's got better vision from where's he standing and that was a good one."
Running back Michael Robinson punched it in from there to take a 10-7 edge while Smith retired for the night.
"I felt a lot more comfortable than I have ever played before," said Smith. "Just in knowing what is happening and reading defenses. Everything is really slowing down. I felt really comfortable about that."
Meanwhile, the much talked about revamped 49ers defense took some time to get warmed up with quarterback Jay Cutler quickly marching his Broncos unit down the field with an 8-play, 67-yard scoring drive capped by a 1-yard Travis Henry run. The unit was its own worst enemy with opportunities for sacks and tackles for a loss turning into big plays because of missed tackles.
"I thought our first group of defense had too many missed tackles," said Nolan. "It cost them on that first drive two or three times. They could have done a better job there."
Tully Banta-Cain gets some pressure on Patrick Ramsey. For more photos from the game, click here! Newcomer Tully-Banta Cain fired up the unit on the following series with two quarterback hurries, one of which caused backup quarterback Patrick Ramsey to chuck up an air ball for a three and out series.
"It was our first time out in a game type situation," said Banta-Cain. "We have got to work on our communication and flying out to the ball. It was a good way to knock the rust off. Guys were out there trying to make plays. Everybody was really excited. As we got into the flow of the game, things started to slow down."
Following Robinson's score, the Broncos immediately retook the lead with Mike Bell attacking the 49ers run defense with five straight carries for 35 yards which set up a 3-yard touchdown toss from Ramsey to Troy Fleming for a Broncos 14-10 cushion.
With Trent Dilfer in for Alex Smith, the 49ers were held to a quick three and out series, but were handed the ball right back when rookie Tarell Brown picked off a pass to set the 49ers up at their 47. The turnover set up another field goal by Nedney, this one from 28 yards outs to close the margin to within one point.
Dilfer again drove his team into Denver territory for a chance to take the lead but was stopped when Hamza Abdullah picked off a pass at the 14 and then returned it out to their 44-yardline. The Broncos also came away empty when a rare miss by kicker Jason Elan ended the first half, with Denver still maintaining a 14-13 edge.
"We got a lot of plays in, and that is what you want to do in the pre-season, run a lot of plays," said Dilfer. "We had the ball for about 18 minutes in the first half. We ran our plays well but we have to finish better."
After failing to convert on a 4th and 1 at the Denver 27 in the third quarter, the Broncos took over on downs. Ramsey put together a 12-play, 63 yard drive that ended in a 26-yard field goal by Brandon Pace to up Denver to a four-point cushion.
Two 49ers scoring opportunities were there for the taking in the fourth quarter which could have turned the tides in the home team's favor.
A 31-yard kickoff return by Brandon Williams late in the third quarter prepped the offense at their own 40. Thomas Clayton, who led the team in rushing with 17 carries for 55 yards, netted six yards on back-to-back carries to set up a 3rd and 4 pass play. Third-string quarterback Shaun Hill hit Williams for a 17-yard completion to move the chains. A few players later, the unit converted on a 4th and 1 play from the 28-yardline with Hill going to Williams, which was followed soon after by a 20-yard strike to Ashley Lelie at the Denver 4 as the third quarter came to a close.
Hill's hot throwing streak ended with two incomplete passes and an interception in the end zone to start the final quarter of play.
Hill and company would keep up the fight, almost mounting a come-from-behind win in the final minutes of the contest. The veteran quarterback completed four straight passes including a 17 and 27-yarder to receiver CJ Brewer, threatening to score from the 10-yardline. Instead Denver protected their end zone, leaving town with the 17-13 victory.
"It was an opportunity for guys lower on the depth chart to get out there and play," said Brewer. "Coach had talked to us and said that he wanted it to look the same regardless of who was in there. I think that was our approach, and it didn't pan out like we wanted to do but we faced some adversity and stayed in it until the end. Sometimes the ball just doesn't roll your way. I still think we took some steps as a team and we'll keep working to make those kind of strides."