By Daniel Brown/San Jose Mercury News (MCT)
INDIANAPOLIS — By the time Anthony Dixon was done racing past defenders, or rumbling over the ones still in his way, the 49ers’ rookie running back had done almost enough to erase the memories of the first-team offense.
Instead, the struggles of Alex Smith and his revamped offensive line still lingered above the 49ers’ 37-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday in their exhibition opener.
Playing without three key members on offense — running back Frank Gore (day off), receiver Michael Crabtree (neck strain) and center Eric Heitmann (broken leg) — the 49ers’ first unit struggled from the start: Michael Robinson fumbled on the first play from scrimmage.
The 49ers’ first four possessions resulted in two punts, two turnovers and at least one big miscommunication. Tight end Vernon Davis and Smith were on different pages and failed to connect on what should have been a 47-yard touchdown pass.
Smith tried again later to another tight end, Delanie Walker, but the ball bounced off Walker’s hands and into the arms of Colts cornerback Jerraud Powers.
Perhaps most alarmingly for the 49ers was a second-quarter sequence in which the offensive line surrendered three sacks of David Carr over four plays — to the Colts’ second-string defense, no less.
Not to worry, Smith said. He acknowledged that his stat line was ugly — 3 of 9 for 37 yards, an interception and a 7.4 passer rating — but stressed that he was seeing the whole field, a good sign considering there was minimal game-planning or film study. Smith added that his missed connection with Davis is an easy problem to correct in time for the regular season.
“As far as how I feel, I felt good,” Smith said. “On paper, QB rating and things like that, tipped ball for a pick doesn’t go over very well. I felt good, but we didn’t get done.
“The thing I think hurt us was obviously starting with the fumble, then going three-and-out. That was tough. We need to start faster than that. It was one of our deals last year, and we can’t continue that this year.”
Coach Mike Singletary agreed, saying he thought the team rebounded from a slow start and ticking off a few items that needed to be “cleaned up.” The timing will get better, he said, noting that Smith’s interception came when “Delanie jumped a little early. I felt he should have caught the ball. So it’s just one of those things where quarterbacks and receivers need to clean up, be more detailed on their routes and decision-making.”
Better pass protection is also high on Singletary’s to-do list, including a continued crash course for rookie right tackle Anthony Davis. The 49ers’ first-round draft pick had a false start and failed to pick up a stunt on a play in which Carr was sacked.
Davis also joined the long list of tackles to have trouble with pass rusher Robert Mathis. “It’s just fast. The stunts come faster,” Davis said. “I’m looking forward to getting back and going to work.”
The Colts led 10-0 during Peyton Manning’s brief, efficient appearance (8 of 10, 91 yards). He led a touchdown drive on his second and final drive of the day, moving the Colts 89 yards, including a breezy 47 yards on three plays against the 49ers’ first-string defense.
The 49ers’ fortunes turned only after Manning left. Reggie Smith, competing for playing time at free safety, intercepted a pass by Curtis Painter and returned it 91 yards for a touchdown.
After that, there was a whole lot of Dixon, a sixth-round pick from Mississippi State. The surprise retirement of Glen Coffee last week left the 49ers short on running backs, so Dixon racked up 21 carries — 16 more than any other player in the game.
Dixon made the most of them, shaking off contact and pounding his way to extra yards. He averaged 4.8 yards on his carries, including a 23-yarder.
“I knew I was ready to get my chance, to get in there and show what I can do,” Dixon said. “And that’s all I was thinking about, just getting my opportunity. (Offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye) always tells us: When you get called on, answer the phone. Go out there and do what you’re supposed to do.”
Dixon eased the concern surrounding the departure of Coffee by rushing for 100 yards in 21 carries, including a defender-blasting 5-yard touchdown run.
On his way to the end zone, Dixon stiff-armed Mike Newton, a 197-pound defensive back. “Cornerbacks, they really don’t want to see me on a daily basis,” said the 233-pound Dixon. “So once I saw him, I knew it was pretty much cake.”
Singletary was less enthusiastic, noting that Dixon still has work to do when it comes to pass protection and reading the defense.
“He did OK,” Singletary said. “We tried to make sure we didn’t overload him with anything. We kept it pretty simple. He’s going to have to continue to grow and expand.”
Cornerbacks: You’ve been warned.