Greg Cosell on Alex Smith: “He’s not quite ready to start just tossing it around unless they orchestrate it for him.”

Here’s what Greg Cosell said on The Murph and Mac Show Thursday about the 49ers’ loss to the Vikings on Sunday.

Q: How were the Vikings able to put together three 80-plus-yards drives against the 49ers?

COSELL: It was a very good mix of run and pass. It was a case for the most part where they didn’t necessarily make a ton big plays, but their running game was sustaining. I thought Peterson really ran well inside. It’s funny, you don’t really look at three, four-yard runs as being big plays in games, but second and six is a lot different than second and nine or ten.

I think that first drive – 16 plays, 82 yards – the Vikings were predominantly in their base personnel offense. That means the 49ers had their base 3-4 personnel on the field.

I thought the other factor that really impacted the game was Ponder’s legs. A couple of important runs that impacted how the 49ers played. I thought they got away from playing their man coverage, which is a real staple, particularly in Nickel on a couple of important third downs and the Vikings were able to convert. Big third-down conversion on the play before Ponder’s running touchdown, it was third and 11. That would almost always be man coverage. They played zone. My guess is they wanted eyes looking back at Ponder.

Ponder played very efficiently. In some ways you could say he played how Alex Smith played last year. Ponder didn’t turn the ball over. He wasn’t asked to do an awful lot. He made a couple of good throws. He hit Harvin on a beautiful corner route on Carlos Rogers.

Percy Harvin was also a big factor in that game in the way he was used. The first thing you have to do with Harvin is indentify where he’s lined up. He lines up all over the formation. I think it was the second play of the game where they kind of missed him, they didn’t know exactly where he was. He caught about a 12 or 13-yard gain, which doesn’t seem like a lot but it is a lot when you play the 49ers.

Q: On the other side of the ball, do the 49ers lack a downfield presence?

COSELL: That’s a very interesting question. I watched the tape and there were not many downfield route combinations called. That really surprised me.

Now, they didn’t need to change anything in the first half despite the score, but when you start getting to the middle of the third quarter and on, you have got to call – in my view, anyway – I think you have to throw the ball a little more at the intermediate levels, take a vertical shot.

Now, of course they would argue that if Smith had just hit Moss who was wide open the game changes and that’s just a poorly missed opportunity. And that’s a valid point. But here’s a very interesting stat. In the first three games of the season, Alex Smith has thrown 94 passes and only four of those passes have traveled more than 19 yards in the air from the line of scrimmage.

Now you have to ask the question as to why. I think that the sample size from this year might be a little small. You guys know how I felt last year, that they played – and it’s too strong to say they played to hide Alex Smith, that’s not exactly what I’m saying – but I think they understood that Alex Smith is not a quarterback at the level of some of the elite guys. He’s good, and I think he’s getting better, they may think that he’s not quite ready to start just tossing it around unless they orchestrate it for him.

One thing to keep in mind. They called one of their shot plays – I think it was in the first half. Do you remember last year Bruce Miller caught a touchdown pass against the Washington Redskins? They called the exact same play in this game. It was the second series of the game. They called the exact same play, but the Vikings’ coverage took it away. Here’s a play designed to gain big yardage or a touchdown. Last year when they called it, it worked. This year they called it, it didn’t work. Sometimes that happens. But the issue was that was the only shot play they called in the game.

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