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Smith coming into his own with 49ers

Image: San Francisco 49ers QB Alex Smith (Andrew Weber/US Presswire)
Alex Smith has led the 49ers to six straight wins.
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A.J. Perez

A.J. Perez previously worked at USA Today, AOL and CBSSports.com, covering beats ranging from performance-enhancing drugs to the NHL. He has also been a finalist for an Associated Press Sports Editors award for investigative reporting. Follow him on Twitter.

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LANDOVER, MD.

Alex Smith receives more praise these days for what he doesn’t do, like toss interceptions, fumble snaps or otherwise mismanage the San Francisco 49ers offense.

Those within the visiting locker room after a 19-11 victory over the Washington Redskins had praise for something Smith did on Sunday: hop up off the FedEx Field turf.

“It was awesome,” said 49ers tackle Joe Staley about a first-quarter collision where Smith was squished between hard-charging 'Skins linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Rocky McIntosh. “Alex is tough as nails. I was nervous because it was a big hit. I thought something (bad) was going to happen. That shows the type of guy he is.”

That’s fortunate because Smith’s stats typically don’t. Smith remains one of only two quarterbacks (Kansas City’s Matt Cassel is the other) on a team that began the day with at least a share of the division lead not to pass for 300 or more yards in a game this season. Smith was 17 for 24 for 200 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions.

Not that Smith needed to be spectacular.

The 49ers defense forced the John Beck-led Redskins offense to turn the ball over three times, and San Francisco running back Frank Gore had his fifth consecutive 100-yard rushing game.

“We’re playing good football,” Smith said. “That’s no secret. The defense is playing great and the special teams are playing great. We got off to a slow start on offense, but we picked it up. I think we still left a lot on the field.”

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A few promising drives stalled, but David Akers was there to convert on all four field goals he attempted. Even with the Redskins scoring their first touchdown in eight quarters late in regulation, that would have been plenty.

But Smith pitched in with a precisely thrown fade to fullback Bruce Miller for a 30-yard TD in the second quarter, a play after the 49ers recovered a fumble by ‘Skins running back Roy Helu.

“He made the big play when it was presented to him,” first-year 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said.

Midway through the season, it looks like Harbaugh made the right call on whom he tapped as the starter. He didn’t announce that Smith, a former No. 1 overall pick out of Utah, was the starter until just before the season opener. Up until then, Smith had six uneven seasons that produced a 19-31 record as a starter.

“I have no idea,” Smith said when asked what has led to his recent success behind center. “Just playing better football. There’s no magic. Coach (Harbaugh) is putting us in a great situation; the guys around me are playing football at a high level. I think they deserve the credit.”

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With the 49ers improving to 7-1 overall (4-0 in road games in the Eastern time zone), Smith hasn’t needed to be anything more than a “manager” most of the time, not unlike former teammate Trent Dilfer. All Dilfer did in his career was lead the Baltimore Ravens to a title 11 years ago.

“He gets credit from us,” 49ers tight end Delanie Walker said. “We don’t care about what the media says about him. It’s all about the team. We’re a family and we give him credit. He’s doing a great job running our offense.”

Smith’s stats certainly would be better had the 49ers not dropped so many passes this season. Another example arose Sunday when Smith found a wide-open Gore, who dropped the volley that would have resulted in a first down on third-and-14 midway through the first quarter. The 49ers are 12th in the league in dropped passes with 13.

“We had a couple that could have been big plays that we didn’t make big plays on, but I think (Smith) played extremely well,” Harbaugh said.

One reason Smith may not be atop people’s minds as a main reason for the resurgence of the 49ers — a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2002 — is that many have written him off as a bust. Guard Adam Snyder, who, like Smith, was drafted in 2005, said that viewpoint was never widely held in the team’s locker room.

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“He’s been the leader of the offense for seven seasons,” Snyder said. “He’s been through some tough times, but he has always been a leader. It just took a little bit longer for everybody to realize it. We’ve seen the same guy. He should get more credit, yeah. Without him, I don’t think we’d be successful.”

Smith may hold the ball too long at times (he’s been sacked 19 times, including twice on Sunday), he’s not very efficient on third down (the Niners were 3 for 12 against the ‘Skins) and he’s not the most likely to go deep (Smith is in the lower third in the league with only two completions of 40 yards or more), but Harbaugh said he’ll take a guy who has thrown only two picks in 206 attempts.

“He does everything you want to do (for) a guy in that position,” Harbaugh said. “He’s only being judged by one thing, like a pitcher in baseball: wins and losses.”

Tagged: 49ers, Redskins, Alex Smith

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