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Senior NFL Columnist

Niners run and defend well, but ultimate success hinges on passing game

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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- A week ago, they were questioning Alex Smith's confidence, some in the media wondering if he had lost it.

"It was in my closet," Smith said joking. "I found it."

Did he ever. Smith, the oft-criticized, never-appreciated quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, nearly pitched a perfect game Monday night as the 49ers blew out the Arizona Cardinals 24-3 to take a hold of first place in the NFC West.

Smith completed 18 of 19 passes for 232 yards and three touchdowns as the 49ers put on an impressive passing display, something they need to do to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

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2012 NFL Week 8
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This is how it has to be for the 49ers. Forget gloating about their impressive running game. Forget the hard-hitting, pass-rushing, nasty-as-hell defense.

Smith and his pass catchers will determine the 49ers' postseason success.

Smith had a three-interception performance in a loss to the Giants two weeks ago, and then followed it up with a lackluster 140-yard game in a tight victory against Seattle 10 days ago, leading to the speculation he had lost his confidence.

Smith joked about that. 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh described it another way.

"I don't think there was ever a question there," Harbaugh said. "I think it's just a lot of gobble, gobble, turkey. Just gobble, gobble, gobble turkey."

Harbaugh also called those who wrote such a thing "jive-turkey gobblers."

When I followed by asking him whether he thought Smith's big game had any correlation to the 49ers not using Colin Kaepernick as a gimmick running quarterback, something they have done this season, he gave me the same type of answer.

"No, no," he said. "More gobble, gobble."

I guess that makes me a turkey. Or is it jive-turkey?

Bizarre is how that scene played out. Gobble, gobble turkey is something you next expect to hear from an NFL head coach. Then again, Harbaugh is a different type of coach.

He might not like hearing it, but the use of Kaepernick seemed to hinder Smith's growth. It's hard to play quarterback and get in a rhythm when you get yanked in and out. That type of thing is gimmick football. Two weeks ago against the Giants, I thought it helped cost them the game.

Some call using Kaepernick creativity. I call it stupidity.

I asked Smith if he felt not having Kaepernick helped his rhythm.

"I don't think it helps my rhythm, I don't think it hurts it," he said. "It's a fine line. It's not like we've gone away from it."

They should.

Smith's only missed pass could have been caught by Delanie Walker, even if it was a little behind him. Walker made up for it when he caught a tipped pass later, one that probably would have been picked by safety Kerry Rhodes if it weren't tipped.

The 49ers had four pass plays of 20 yards or more against the Cardinals after coming in with 17 in the first seven games.

Receiver Michael Crabtree had two touchdown catches plus another reception for 30 yards, Randy Moss had a 47-yard touchdown catch-and-run, Walker had a 23-yard catch and Vernon Davis had one of 25 yards.

The Cardinals loaded up to stuff the run, which gave Smith and his receivers chances down the field.

"They wanted to put the ball in Alex's hands and he kicked their ass," 49ers tackle Joe Staley said.

Crabtree, a former top-10 pick, hasn't lived up to expectations, but he sure looked like a high pick against Patrick Peterson and the Cardinals. His first touchdown catch was a great one over Peterson, who had good coverage. The second one came when he made Peterson fall down with a quick inside move for a 9-yard score.

Moss made a great move on his 47-yard touchdown, his sideline jaunt almost remindful of the old Moss.

"That's the OG, triple OG," Crabtree said of Moss. "The guy's been doing it for so long, and I was just happy to see it."

It has to be tough being a receiver in one of the few run-heavy offenses in the NFL. So I asked Crabtree about it.

"You think it's run heavy?" he said. "It's frustrating when you're not getting the ball, but we're not worried about that right now. When you get in the game, if you get give chances, five touches, you have to make the most of them."

The 49ers defense held Arizona to 7 rushing yards, sacked John Skelton four times, hit him a bunch more and essentially put the game on ice once the 49ers scored 14 points.

But it can't always be that way. That's why it's so important for Smith to play like he did Monday night.

"So how important is it for your quarterback to play really well?" Harbaugh said. "It's very important. I don't know how you can play much better. That was a fantastic game by him."

That's no gobble, gobble, turkey stuff there.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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