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Protecting against sacks key for 49ers this week

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP)

Alex Smith and the San Francisco 49ers understand the value of taking a sack.

Smith was sacked more than any other NFL quarterback last season and is on a pace to be dropped even more times this year. But that hasn't stopped the San Francisco offense from thriving during the team's 2-0 start.

While Smith already has been sacked seven times, San Francisco's offense has yet to make a turnover and is averaging 363 yards per game - 155.5 yards more than the 49ers averaged after two games last season.

But protecting both the football and their quarterback are primary concerns for the 49ers this week when they play the Minnesota Vikings, who tied for the NFL lead in sacks last season.

Since the start of the 2011 season, Smith has been sacked an NFL-high 51 times. But he also has thrown the fewest interceptions of any regular quarterback during that span.

And this year, Smith is moving the offense consistently as well as protecting the ball. He doesn't see the sacks as a detriment in that progress.

''Obviously, you don't want to take sacks, but sometimes it's not the end of the world,'' Smith said. ''You watch Aaron Rodgers play, a guy that takes a lot of sacks, but he also makes a lot of plays with his feet, keeps plays alive. There is some give and take there with not just forcing balls and getting rid of the ball.''

Smith is clearly not one to force the ball.

While completing 20 of 31 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns in last week's 27-19 victory over Detroit, Smith stretched his string of consecutive regular-season passes without an interception to a team-record 216. Including two playoff games last season, Smith has not thrown an interception in his last 284 passes.

Smith enters Sunday's game at Minnesota as the NFL's second-ranked quarterback with a passer rating of 115.9.

While some said Smith held the ball too long in the pocket last season, when he was sacked 44 times, his sacks are being looked at more now as wise decisions.

''If your ultimate goal is to keep your stats low in sacks, then he needs to get rid of the ball,'' offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. ''Our ultimate goal is to win games, and you don't lose games getting sacks. You lose games by turning the ball over and not scoring enough points. There's some times where you quantify a sack as a smart sack for a quarterback, at least we would.''

Smith has held up well physically to the punishment, and San Francisco has been more steady and productive with the football than last season, when the 49ers finished ranked 26th in the NFL in total offense.

The 49ers have improved this year in almost every aspect of their offense except one: They rank 30th in the NFL in sacks allowed per play.

That's a concern for the 49ers this week as they embark on a nine-day road trip for the second consecutive year. After Sunday's game in Minnesota, San Francisco will fly directly to Youngstown, Ohio, to prepare for its Sept. 30 game against the Jets in New York.

The 49ers will face a Minnesota defense that produced 50 sacks last season. Of particular concern is right end Jared Allen, the NFL leader with 22 sacks last year.

Allen often will be matched against left tackle Joe Staley, a Pro Bowl starter last season who struggled in the opener this year against Green Bay. Staley was beaten around the left edge for 2.5 sacks by Clay Matthews. But he bounced back with a strong game last week against Detroit.

''It's going to be a great challenge going up against them,'' Staley said. ''(Allen) does things a little bit different than Clay and the guys we faced last week. He's a little more slippery, longer, more of a savvy guy. He's not really going to run straight down your throat. He's a get-on-the-edge, slippery kind of dude.''

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Tagged: Packers, Vikings, Jared Allen, Joe Staley, 49ers, Alex Smith

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