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49ers trying to improve protection for QB Smith

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POSTED August 22, 2012 10:07 p.m.

SANTA CLARA (AP) — Offensive coordinator Greg Roman said Wednesday that quarterback Alex Smith has become "savant-like" in his understanding of the San Francisco 49ers' West Coast system.

But one area where both Smith and the team would like to see the eighth-year veteran improve is in his ability to recognize and elude pass rush pressure.

Smith was sacked twice and hit several other times during his three series of action in last week's 20-9 exhibition loss to the Houston Texans. It brought back visions of last season, when Smith was sacked a career-high 44 times, more than any other NFL quarterback.

Smith has been sacked 179 times in 72 career games, including playoffs, and the 49ers (No. 4 in the AP Pro32) have focused this summer on improving the protection in front of him.

The breakdowns in protection last year contributed to San Francisco finishing 26th in the NFL rankings in both total offense and sacks allowed per play.

"We'd like to get those numbers down, bottom line," Roman said. "There were far too many unforced errors, a lack of execution on our part. That's something that has to improve, and that's not just on the offensive line."

Smith, playing for his seventh offensive coordinator in seven seasons last year, steadily grew in Roman's system as the year progressed. He finished with the best season of his career while leading the 49ers to a 13-3 finish and a berth in the NFC championship game.

Smith was ninth in the NFL with a career-best 90.7 passer rating, and coaches have raved about his progress this year with a full offseason to digest the offense.

"He totally understands the offense now and all the different things that we do," Roman said. "He's really, really, really an intelligent, bright football player. He is super smart, savant-like at times, has great ideas, can recite things, fix things. There's times a quarterback has to make a quick decision. Alex is getting through his reads quicker, he's eliminating reads earlier and he's really taking ownership of our offense."

Smith also is working on getting the football out of his hands more quickly on passing downs. He had a tendency to hold the ball too long last season.

But he also protected it better than any quarterback, throwing just five interceptions, the fewest in team history and the fewest in the league last season for any regular starting quarterback.

Smith has played well during his five series of action in San Francisco's two preseason games, completing 8 of 12 passes and compiling a 108.0 passer rating. He took the blame for the protection issues that surfaced against the Texans after Smith faced little pressure while completing all three of his passes in the team's Aug. 10 preseason opener against Minnesota.

"A lot of that was self-inflicted, so I take credit for quite a bit of that during the (Houston) game," Smith said. "I really felt like the protection was pretty good, and it's much better now. I think we'll all do a better job, and really it falls on all of us. There's a fine line there getting the ball out in windows and then using your legs, using them to help you, finding the soft spot in the pocket and helping your offensive linemen out."

San Francisco's offensive line struggled for several years to find continuity as a unit before establishing itself last year. The 49ers — who have allowed 238 sacks over the past five seasons — found an identity last year as a power running team, finishing eighth in the NFL in rushing offense.

That remains the strength of the offense, which has rushed for 378 yards while averaging 5.7 yards per carry in two preseason games.

"You have to be able to run the ball before you pass it, right?" left guard Mike Iupati said. "We just try to play physical as an O-line, and I think we're coming along good in pass protection. We had a great offseason, so that hopefully will get better. The other side gets paid too, so we just have to hold our end and fight."

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