SANTA CLARA — When Alex Smith saw an Eagles cornerback and safety blitzing from his right side in the third quarter of Sunday’s game, he knew exactly what to do.
He dropped back three steps and fired a dart to receiver Joshua Morgan, who sprinted untouched into the end zone for a 30-yard touchdown. The score was San Francisco’s first big step in erasing a 20-point Eagles lead.
Last year, that play wouldn’t have been nearly as automatic.
When a defense blitzed, 49ers receivers were required to break off their original routes. Smith had to interpret what the receiver was thinking. The receivers had to guess what the quarterback was thinking. And all that mind reading led to mistakes.
“Last year he had so much going on, so much that they put on Alex’s mind when it came to the blitz,” Morgan said. “ ... They had too many people trying to read the blitz. Sometimes they’d get it wrong. Sometimes they’d get it right. When you’ve got other people trying to do the quarterback’s job, then you’ve got miscommunication.”
This year, the 49ers’ response to blitzes is simpler and reflective of a head coach, Jim Harbaugh, who used to be an NFL quarterback. The receivers continue to run their original route and leave it up to the quarterback to decide where to throw it.
And so far, Smith’s decisions have been sound.
He is one of two quarterbacks who have played four games this season (St. Louis’ Sam Bradford is the other) with only one interception. At this point last season, Smith already had seven interceptions.
He’s also thrown four touchdowns.
Two of them came when Smith recognized mismatches between tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker and slower linebackers. The other two came when Smith beat a blitzing defense.
He’s gotten so good at exploiting blitzes that he relished defensive coordinators sending five, six and seven pass rushers at him.