Sports

Commentary: 49ers a work in progress

PITTSBURGH -- More yards. But fewer points.

More passing. But fewer touchdowns.

More offensive creativity. But a loss.

There. Does that satisfy all you critics of the San Francisco 49ers' play-calling? We know the answer, don't we? The answer is no. True happiness and satisfaction will not occur until the Scarlet Heroes of Yore go back to winning 14 or 15 games a season while averaging 35 points and three touchdown passes per game.

Friends, get real. You will still be waiting quite a while for those days to return. You must learn to deal with the present. And in the present, the 49ers are neither horrible nor great. And their best chance to win is the way they won in the season's first two weeks -- by giving the ball to Frank Gore early and often. It's not spectacular.

But it's effective.

And if Gore is stopped by an opponent? We saw Sunday what happens: The 49ers' playbook opens up. And the passing game blooms. With fragrant, wild inconsistency.

"We'll learn from this and get better," Coach Mike Nolan said.

But there were no shocking lessons to learn, really. The truth is, we finally had the chance to see this developing 49ers team compete against a very good NFL opponent, from the stronger AFC, on the road.

The result was a 21-point loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. That's a surprise? Yes, it could have been closer. Probably should have been.

There was a goofy rules interpretation that cost the 49ers a probable score -- but not a victory. Pittsburgh has won 13 of its past 14 games against the NFC. It has given up just one touchdown on its past 32 defensive series. Were the 49ers going to overcome those overwhelming statistical trends? No.

True, it was refreshing and fun to see the 49ers' offense open up and give quarterback Alex Smith more freedom to roll out and roam. But we discovered that Smith and his receivers have a lot of work to do in terms of reading coverages -- or, at least, reading them in the same language. Several passes were dropped. One was intercepted. More often, Smith's deliveries were a yard or two outside, or inside, his receivers.

Was that the fault of Smith? Or of his receivers for running faulty routes? Smith diplomatically declined to say. So did Nolan.

"I'm going to put it on both of them right now, just to be fair to everyone, until we look at the film," Nolan said.

Jim Hostler, the offensive coordinator, was not inclined to put the blame on Smith.

"Alex played his ass off today," Hostler said. "He stepped up in a pressure situation. Every week there are going to be four or five plays where the quarterback doesn't do it exactly right. But you learn and try to get it right the next time. He managed the game much better."

Hostler, to his credit, was also open and honest about his unit's flaws. He began with the fact that in the first quarter the offense made two trips inside the Steelers' 20-yard line but produced only two field goals.

"The red zone's killing us," Hostler said. "We're not producing touchdowns. We've got to get that rectified. We're taking shots and we're not hitting them."

Right. But why? The 49ers' offense has so many young moving parts -- a 23-year-old quarterback, a second-year tight end, a rookie at right tackle -- that the temptation is to simply shrug your shoulders and sigh. Watching the offense is a little like watching someone try to assemble a car while the car is moving at full speed down the interstate. Some of the parts are fitting better than others.

Hostler didn't like that analogy, however. To him, it's more a matter of the right parts not functioning more efficiently more often.

There was more diversity, for certain, but that was the plan all along.

Davis, the tight end who had respectfully asked Nolan for more passes to be thrown his way, had that wish granted Sunday. But Davis let one ball clang off his mitts and other times. ... well, either he did not go exactly where Smith expected, or Smith did not throw exactly where Davis expected him to throw.

Asked directly about Davis' day, Nolan said: "I thought he did OK..... But at the same time remember this: Make sure you're ready so that when it comes. ... you know, don't cry about the ball and then not catch the ball."

If the 49ers did learn something, they won't drop the ball next Sunday against Seattle. More yards are nice. More wins in the division are better.

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