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Updated: August 22nd, 2010 9:39pm
Notebook: Alex Smith, 49ers carve up Vikings' defense early

Notebook: Alex Smith, 49ers carve up Vikings' defense early

by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com
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SAN FRANCISCO -- For as rough a time as Brett Favre had in his preseason debut, things didn't start much better for the Minnesota Vikings' starting defense.

Operating without starting running back Frank Gore, receiver Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis, former No. 1 draft pick Alex Smith nonetheless opened the San Francisco 49ers' 15-10 win on Sunday with a 12-play, 70-yard touchdown drive against the Vikings' first string.

"Defensively, I thought it took a second for us to warm up," Vikings coach Brad Childress said. "I thought we played better the second series and on down the road. We did let them (stay on) field on a couple of third downs there on that long drive. We didn't make that guy (Smith) particularly uncomfortable back there."

Smith completed 5 of 6 passes, including a quick out to Bakari Grant for 5 yards on third-and-2; a 13-yard checkdown to Domonique Zeigler on third-and-4; a second-down pass over the middle to tight end Delanie Walker, who beat middle linebacker E.J. Henderson against a zone blitz and took it for 23; and an 11-yard in to Walker to convert on third-and-11.

The last set up running back Anthony Dixon's 4-yard touchdown run on a counter-toss left. Free safety Madieu Williams tried to play it from the inside, so Dixon bounced it out and won the race around the corner against cornerback Asher Allen, who was mugged up against receiver Ted Ginn Jr.

"We were moving the chains and getting a bunch of third-down conversions and just took it down the field methodically," Smith said. "We were in the wind in the passing game, but didn't let it bother us, didn't let it faze us. We just came out against the No. 1 rush defense in the NFL and marched it down the field."

The only Vikings defensive starter sitting out was nose tackle Pat Williams, who rested for a second straight week. Allen started in place of Lito Sheppard, who served as the third cornerback in the nickel defense, and Jamarca Sanford started in place of Tyrell Johnson at strong safety.

The starters stayed on the field for San Francisco's second drive and forced a three-and-out as the 49ers ran three consecutive shotgun draws and took a false start. Only Sanford remained on the field for the third series.

Smith was 9-for-13 passing for 88 yards before departing at halftime for Nate Davis.

"He did a good job managing them, keeping them on the field on third downs," Sanford said. "We've got to do a better job on defense of stopping them."

E.J.'s back

The bright spot on the first drive was the play of Henderson, who was in on seven tackles -- including stopping Dixon for loss and no gain -- in his first game action since breaking a leg last Dec. 6 at Arizona.

"I thought he was around the football," Childress said. "He had some good penetration. He is an excellent blitzing linebacker, and I saw him show up in that regard."

Henderson's injury occurred in a collision with Sanford, who said his veteran teammate made a point to seek him out before last week's preseason opener at St. Louis and turn the page.

"That was a big relief," Sanford said. "I was still carrying it on my shoulders, still worrying about that. ... He told me, 'We're going to be in that hole again, so don't worry about that. That's in the past. Just be ready.'" 

Henderson wasn't available to reporters after the game.

Light load

Sanford's start wasn't entirely surprising, since he'd split reps roughly evenly with Johnson since training camp began.

More striking was that Johnson didn't play on defense until the third quarter.

"Just wanted to make sure we had enough snaps with Jamarca playing before Tyrell came in," Childress said.

Johnson appeared to be at fault on a 60-yard completion from Davis to Ginn that set up a 49ers field goal, chasing a cross instead of following Ginn deep. He also laid the night's biggest hit, causing a delay after breaking up a pass with a hard shoulder to tight end Nate Byham's ribs.

Change of plans

Contrary to the plan special-teams coordinator Brian Murphy laid out during training camp, Ryan Longwell -- not Rhys Lloyd -- handled all kicking duties in the first half.

The plan had been for Longwell to take the first half in the preseason opener at St. Louis and Lloyd to do it in San Francisco, with the other taking the second half.

"I'm sure we'll flip it over this week," Childress said.

Longwell got the Vikings' first field-goal attempt of the preseason and drilled it from 40 yards in the second quarter. Lloyd's only place-kick was an extra point in the final minutes.

Health watch

Center John Sullivan, who has been sidelined for weeks with a calf strain, made a surprise appearance during early warm-ups and appears to remain on track to practice Tuesday.

Childress had said earlier in the week Sullivan wouldn't travel. Jon Cooper made his second straight start in his place and stayed in for one series before being replaced by Anthony Herrera, who was replaced at right guard by rookie Chris DeGeare.

"We wanted to look at that combination as well," Childress said.

Receiver Greg Lewis started for Percy Harvin (migraines), who is expected back on Tuesday.

"I anticipate that," Childress said, "but I've been wrong before."

Tight end Garrett Mills, who limped off the practice field on Friday, was in uniform.

Quick hits

• Cook thought he had the Vikings' biggest play of the day, scooping up an apparent Dixon fumble and returning it 88 yards for a game-tying touchdown with 14:04 left in the fourth quarter. Replays clearly showed the ground caused the fumble, though, and referee Bill Leavy overturned the call after the 49ers challenged.

• Favre was among the Vikings' captains in his first game since rejoining the team on Tuesday. DT Kevin Williams, Henderson, Longwell and LG Steve Hutchinson were the others. The Vikings won the toss and deferred.

• In addition to Pat Williams and Sullivan, not playing for the Vikings were CB DeAndre Wright (leg) and LB J Leman (turf toe). Both had missed practice time in recent weeks. 

• Vikings owner Zygi Wilf attended and spent time on the bench before the game speaking with money man Rob Brzezinski.

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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