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Alex Smith and Jay Cutler both acknowledge they're still works in progress. Those works got a tiny bit closer to completion in their preseason opener.
Smith went 4-for-5 for 58 yards passing while leading two first-quarter scoring drives for the 49ers, and Cutler led a 67-yard TD march to open the Broncos' 17-13 victory Monday night.
Both teams have postseason expectations, and both Cutler and Smith believe they're more ready to handle the pressure than they were when the clubs met in their regular-season finales last New Year's Eve.
The 49ers' 26-23 overtime victory kept Cutler's Broncos out of the playoffs just five weeks after he became the starter, while Smith finished up his second straight losing season. Both quarterbacks seemed a good deal more polished in their short appearances at Candlestick Park.
"I felt a lot more comfortable than I've ever played," Smith said. "Knowing what's happening and reading defenses, everything is really slowing down. I felt really comfortable about that."
Smith's 26-yard throw to Arnaz Battle on a tight post route was singled out by coach Mike Nolan as a confident, aggressive throw &
the type he didn't make regularly in his first two NFL seasons.
"It was one of those, 'Don't, don't &
oh, that was a great play,'" Nolan said. "Alex did a real nice job, had a good command of the offense. I thought the first-team offense looked good."
Neither team scored in the final 19 minutes, and the Broncos' defense stopped the 49ers at the Denver — with 1:21 to play as the clubs finally played the NFL's last exhibition opener, a full eight days after the Hall of Fame game kicked off the preseason.
Cutler, whose only completion was a good 24-yard throw to Javon Walker, believes he'll find it easier to take charge of the offense with a strong training camp behind him.
"We got out there and made plays, and on the first drive we put one in there," Cutler said. "I had short work, and I'll have to build on it for next week against Dallas and then get better and better."
The Broncos played without defensive tackle Gerard Warren because they're trying to trade the seven-year veteran, coach Mike Shanahan revealed after the game. Amon Gordon started in place of Warren, who might be released if Denver can't make a deal.
"I'm not going to get into detail, but we thought we had a trade, and I'll talk about it a little more on Wednesday," Shanahan said. "Until things are finalized, I kept him home because I thought we had a trade."
Maurice Hicks and Michael Robinson both looked good in limited action in their battle to be Frank Gore's backup. Hicks rushed for 30 yards and Robinson added 25. Gore, the 2006 NFC rushing leader, will sit out at least the 49ers' first three exhibitions with a broken hand.
The Broncos kept Cutler safe behind a patchwork offensive line missing starters Ben Hamilton and Matt Lepsis, calling for just two passes during Cutler's brief action. A few plays after hitting Walker, Cutler nimbly avoided Marques Douglas' sack attempt and scrambled 16 yards to the 1, where Travis Henry punched it in.
Smith then hit new target Darrell Jackson with an 18-yard pass while Champ Bailey was draped all over the receiver. That drive ended with Joe Nedney's 37-yard field goal, but Smith uncorked another strong throw to Battle on the next drive, setting up Robinson's TD dive.
After Quincy Morgan made a 58-yard kickoff return for Denver, Patrick Ramsey replaced Cutler and led another scoring drive, hitting backup fullback Troy Fleming with a TD pass shortly after San Francisco replaced its first-team defense.
Notes: San Francisco WR Ashley Lelie had two catches for 26 yards, playing with the Niners' third-stringers against his former team. ... The Niners rested two veteran defenders: DE Bryant Young and Pro Bowl CB Walt Harris. ... Denver kept WRs Rod Smith and Brandon Stokley out of the lineup.
Smith, Cutler off to good starts in Broncos' victory
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