Smith has work cut out for him against Cardinals

It’s amazing to think that Alex Smith is in his eighth season with the 49ers, but it’s true.

I think it’s fair to say that Smith – a former No. 1 pick – has had an up-and-down career with various injuries that have sidelined him for major stretches [he missed the entire 2008 season after injuring an already surgically repaired shoulder].

You can also throw in the fact that Smith’s had five different offensive coordinators in his eight years in San Francisco.

You combine those two [injuries and lack of continuity on your coaching staff] and you can see why Smith has been under a microscope since his entrance into the league.

However, Jim Harbaugh and his staff took the reigns of the 49ers last year, and took them by storm, winning 13 games and nearly making the Super Bowl, falling to the eventual world champion Giants in the NFC Championship Game last January.

It’s no surprise that, statistically, Smith is having the best year-and-a-half of his career since Harbaugh took over.

In 2011, Smith passed for a career high 3,144 yards and 17 touchdowns. He completed a career high 61.3 percent of his passes, while throwing just five interceptions all season long.

So far, in seven games this season, Smith is sixth among all quarterbacks in completion percentage [66.8], and has the highest quarterback rating [93.9] of his career.

Smith won’t take full credit for his turnaround. He’s quick to single out the coaching staff and his teammates, who he feels aided in his resurrection.

“Coach Harbaugh and his staff, obviously coming in, and not just what they’ve done for me, but obviously this team and the turn we made,” Smith said. “Obviously, my teammates deserve a lot of credit as well, because the guys are going out there and making plays.”

The 49ers [5-2] and Cardinals [4-3] renew their rivalry this coming Monday night at University of Phoenix Stadium, with first place in the NFC West on the line.

Smith has faced the Cardinals nine times in his career [eight starts], and is 4-5 in those nine games. From his vantage point, this rivalry is one of the best in the league.

“A huge rivalry, big rivalry,” Smith said. “It’s tough to put into words, these are all unique division games, they all have their unique rivalry, each matchup, because they have so much history.”

“You see each other twice a year for so many years, so they all have their own character and own little plot, “ Smith said. “This one’s no different.”

So far this season, whenever teams within the division face each other, they’re close games, hard-fought games, which is a testament to each team’s defense, all of whom are ranked within the top-10 in the league in total defense.

Smith faced one of those top defenses last Thursday night in the Seahawks, and will face another one this Monday night in the Cardinals.

“No surprise,” Smith said. “You look across the board at all the defenses, they’re all playing really well. They all have extremely good personnel and good schemes, so not a surprise when you say that.”

Smith was around during the lean years, when the NFC West was the laughingstock of the NFL.

Not anymore.

“I think as a whole, the entire division has really stepped up,” Smith said. “I think it’s one of the best divisions in football, clearly, if you’re looking at records.”

Back to the rivalry…

The 49ers have had the Cardinals’ number recently, winning five of the last six games in the series, but all that doesn’t matter to Smith, because he knows the challenge the Cardinals and their defense poses each and every time the 49ers face them.

“I feel like every time we play each other, these are just physical battles,” Smith said. “Most of the time they are coming down to the end, and they are hard-fought games.”

“The history, as far as record-wise, I don’t think anyone’s really thinking of that,” Smith said. “This next game is important, it’s a big challenge for us.”

On Dec. 11, 2011, the 49ers came into University of Phoenix Stadium with just two losses. They flew home with their third and final regular season loss, 21-19 to Arizona.

Smith had one of his worst outings of the season that day. He was 18-of-37 for 175 yards and zero touchdowns. He was also sacked five times.

Smith would be an expert when it comes to the Cardinals defense, and what kind of challenges they pose to an opposing quarterback.

“Obviously, personnel jumps out at you,” Smith said. “They play extremely fast, they are good players, they play fast in the second year in that scheme, running around and they can create pressure when they want to.”

“They do some unorthodox things, and really have some success doing it,” Smith said. “We have our work cut out for us.”

Smith says that loss still sticks in his mind.

“For sure,” Smith said. “Obviously watching the tape of both games against them last year, and then the tape this year of all their games, so I certainly watched it and it brings back memories.”

While watching the tapes, Smith noticed the linebacking corps for Arizona, and how they’ve improved from last season.

“They’re all just so athletic and play fast,” Smith said. “Great tacklers, making plays across the board. I just really feel like they’re an athletic group.”

“They get to the football, and they’re a good tackling group as well.”

In the end, Smith knows this game is one they must have, especially being that it’s the Cardinals.

“It’s a division game, it’s our first with them, and it’s on Monday night,” Smith said. “These matter so much, and you look back on these, so this one’s definitely very important.”