Jim Harbaugh says 49ers quarterback Alex Smith is one “tough son of a gun.”
It might be nice, however, if Smith didn’t have to prove it over and over again.
Three days after Smith was sacked six times by the Cowboys, the team announced he suffered a concussion in the game.
Though Smith cleared a neurological exam and was allowed to practice in full with the 49ers Wednesday and is expected to play against the Bengals in Cincinnati this Sunday, the fact the quarterback took a beating should raise some red flags.
Smith, after all, has been praised early and often by Harbaugh as an improved version of his former self – the quarterback so often criticized by fans and the media in past seasons -- and the leader of the team’s new West Coast offense.
But in the exhibition season, Smith was sacked and hit with regularity and the offensive line’s inability to protect him became a hot-button issue. In the season-opening win over Seattle, Smith wasn’t sacked even once, and a couple of the team’s offensive linemen said they believed the line had a handle on the previous problem.
Then came Dallas, the sacks, several other hard hits on Smith and, eventually, the report of his concussion.
In a radio interview earlier this week, Harbaugh addressed the sacks, saying breakdowns were numerous and it was a “unit thing.”
“We all sting from that and are accountable for it,” Harbaugh said on KNBR Tuesday morning.
The Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows this week gave readers a detailed breakdown of the six pack of sacks, going over each play. Indeed, it was a “unit thing,” with a variety of reasons contributing to the hits on Smith.
Now, with perhaps a more vulnerable quarterback to protect, the Niners’ offensive unit faces the Bengals, who have sacked opposing QBs four times in two games.
Harbaugh again praised Smith Wednesday, saying his QB “was making some big time plays” against Dallas and he's “pleased with the way Alex is playing.”
In two games, Smith has completed 70.5 percent of his throws (31-of-44) for 303 yards and two TDs vs. one pick, with a passer rating of 95.2, eighth best in the NFC.
But if Smith doesn’t get better and more consistent protection this season, it’s going to be difficult for him to keep making those strides.