Ron Jaworski, who once dedicated a lengthy “Monday Night Football” segment to dissecting flaws in Alex Smith’s throwing motion, was back in his office Wednesday, breaking down game film of the 49ers’ quarterback.
It must be like looking at a different guy. Right, Jaws?
“He really hasn’t made a whole lot of improvements in his mechanics,” Jaworski said. “A few years ago, I broke down his locked left leg. I still think that knee lock causes him some problems with his accuracy.”
Smith, who starred at the University of Utah, certainly looks better on the stat sheet as the 49ers gear up for their MNF showdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Candlestick Park. The quarterback is enjoying career highs in completion percentage (61.7 percent) and passer rating (91.5) and has 15 touchdown passes to only five interceptions.
Smith is also winning at a career-best rate: The 49ers (10-3) can maintain the inside track at a No. 2 playoff seed and first-round bye with a victory over Pittsburgh.
Jaworski, who will be in the ESPN broadcast booth for the game, acknowledged that Smith’s overall play is much better, praising the passer’s decision-making and his leadership in Jim Harbaugh’s offense.
But the analyst did not retreat from his long-standing criticism of Smith’s fundamentals.
Jaworski first expressed his concerns during a broadcast on Nov. 12, 2007, when Smith struggled through a scattershot effort against the Seattle Seahawks. Jaworski used slow-motion replays to demonstrate how the quarterback’s stiff front leg created problems with velocity and accuracy.
Jaworski, a former Pro Bowl quarterback, said that having some flex in the front leg allows a passer to keep his shoulders parallel to the ground, which provides a more balanced launching point.
Smith’s knee-lock is still there, Jaworski said. And, seven years into Smith’s career, it’s probably there to stay.
“It’s something that he’s comfortable with. It’s unique to his passes,” Jaworski said. “It’s not something I like to see. I think it’s a detriment to quarterbacks when they don’t have that flexed knee and a cushion.”
Style points aside, Smith ranks in the league’s top 10 for passer rating and completion percentage. Over his past 18 starts, the 49ers starter has 23 touchdown passes and only six interceptions. At this season’s midway point, he was voted the comeback player of the year by Sports Illustrated.
“Alex has played well. And I think more importantly, he understands what his role is,” Jaworski said. “He understands this system right now. He’s not asked to drop back 40 times and win the game for the 49ers. ...
“He’s not making those risky throws. He’s even taking sacks when a play isn’t there. And I don’t mean that in a negative way. I mean that in a positive way. Rather than make a ridiculous throw that gets picked off, which in the past he would do, he’s throwing the football away.”
On a conference call to preview ESPN’s broadcast, co-analyst Jon Gruden was less concerned with the nuances of Smith’s mechanics than with the blocking in front of him.
Gruden said his film study has focused on the 49ers offensive line, where he kept looking at the way the Baltimore Ravens bludgeoned Smith with nine sacks on Thanksgiving Day.
He suspects that Pittsburgh coordinator defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will borrow liberally from the Ravens’ game plan.
“(The 49ers) got beat in scheme. There were physical breakdowns. Individuals got beat across the board,” Gruden said. “That’s a red flag, and that has to be a huge concern.
“We all know that the Pittsburgh Steelers, at the end of the day, are known for rocking you on defense. I just have to assume that Dick LeBeau is drawing up multiple overload blitzing schemes to test this young 49ers offensive line.”