Third downs first priority for 49ers

SANTA CLARA -- The 49ers' most memorable plays from 2006 include a Houdini-like escape by Alex Smith on a rainy night in Seattle and a 36-yard game-winning field goal on a frozen field in Denver.

But the play 49ers followers can't shake from their brains occurred on third down in St. Louis.

Ahead by a point late in the fourth quarter, the 49ers appeared well on their way to grinding out a win over the whipped and weary Rams. The drive, however, was halted on third-and-1 from the Rams' 7-yard line when Michael Robinson was stopped for no gain. The 49ers kicked a short field goal with 3:54 remaining -- plenty of time, as it turned out, for St. Louis to march 66 yards for the winning touchdown.

That aggravating sequence was a microcosm of a season in which the 49ers converted only 34.5 percent of their third-down tries, ranking them 26th in the league. This season, third down is priority No. 1.

"We have made a very conscious effort to try and get better on third down," offensive coordinator Jim Hostler said. "Our problem last year was the total snaps we got in the game. When you look at the number of plays we ran, we were down at the bottom."

A year ago, the 49ers didn't have the luxury of concentrating on third-down packages. Having to digest new coordinator Norv Turner's numbers-based offense, it was all the team could do to learn the base offense by Week 1. This season, Hostler has kept most of Turner's offense intact.

"We don't really have to focus on a lot of the things we had to practice last year," Smith said. "So we have more time to get some third-down work in."

That work seemed to pay off in the 49ers' first two exhibition games, in which their third-date rate was more than 40 percent. But the figure plummeted to a disappointing 35.8 percent by the end of the exhibition season due to a flurry of three-and-out sequences at Chicago and San Diego.

Part of the problem was the caliber of competition, Hostler said. Another issue is that the 49ers' offensive players simply haven't been playing together for very long.

"It's not going to show up in Game 1," Hostler said. "It's not going to show up in the first three games. Hopefully, over 16 games we're consistent enough on third downs that we can be in the top 15 in that category."

One reason for optimism is Smith's surrounding cast.

Of the teams that were the best on third down last year -- Indianapolis, Dallas and New Orleans -- each has an array of weapons, from tight ends such as the Cowboys' Jason Witten to third-down backs such as the Saints' Reggie Bush.

At times last year, it seemed as if the 49ers' only third-down option was receiver Arnaz Battle, who said defenses began zeroing in on him as the season went on.

This year, the 49ers are giving defenses more to consider by making Battle the slot receiver on some third-down plays and moving him to a different spot on others. The team also added Darrell Jackson and Ashley Lelie to its receiving corps, and has a healthy Vernon Davis at tight end.

Said Hostler: "The more people who can win one-on-one matchups and put pressure on defenses, the better you are on third downs."