by Ben Muth
This week we’ll be reviewing the 49ers. For the first time all offseason I took a look at two full games in preparation. First, I watched their Thanksgiving evening game against the Baltimore Ravens; the one in which they gave up seven sacks. I also watched their playoff win in the divisional round against the New Orleans Saints. That was a much better performance, as the only time the Saints generated real pressure on Alex Smith was when they sent heavy blitzes that left their secondary exposed.
Overall, I would say this line did not look as good as I thought they would given their team’s style of play and success this past year. They weren’t a bad unit (they did play a bad game), but they didn’t dominate like I thought they might. The good news for 49ers fans is that they have already made changes to address last year's biggest weakness: right guard.
In the Baltimore game, Chilo Rachal and Adam Snyder rotated in and out a couple of times. It seemed like Snyder got banged up and missed a series, realized he wasn’t fit to play when he tried to gut it out for a few series, and then Rachal finished the game. Or maybe both guys kept getting pulled due to ineffectiveness. Snyder seemed to come up a bit lame after the first time he was pulled, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
Snyder originally left after he failed to pass off a twist that resulted in a Haloti Ngata sack. Snyder failed to blunt the penetration, which meant a Ravens defender was able to T-bone Jonathan Godwin and knock him three yards out of position. As a result, Ngata was able to wrap around inside on a clear path to Smith. Snyder didn’t look hurt on the third-down play that ended the series, but failed to come out for the next one.
Rachal immediately had a pass protection breakdown that led to an easy sack during his first series. It was a strange play, and I’m not sure about all the specifics, but given the fact that the other linemen were all staring at Rachal immediately after the play, I assume he was at fault. Watching the play back, my immediate idea is that Rachal thought Cory Redding was the end and Paul Kruger was the outside linebacker. Now that may be technically true, but oftentimes when you play teams like the Ravens you designate hybrids like Kruger as "known rushers" and treat them as down linemen. Anthony Davis treated Kruger as an end which means that Redding would be the defensive tackle and, thus, Rachal’s responsibility. I’m not sure which guy was right, but I do know that most pass protection schemes in Jim Harbaugh’s playbook account for the down linemen.
Snyder came back in, made it through one drive without incident, then either realized he couldn’t play or got pulled. On this drive, he just got beat underneath by Ngata in a one-on-one situation. That is understandable; there are a lot of guys that can't block Ngata, but Snyder had already been beaten underneath by lesser rushers throughout the first half. Snyder started again in the New Orleans game and played much better, particularly in the ground game, but he still had trouble with counters to his inside. As a Cardinals fan, I am not thrilled for the Adam Snyder era.
Rachal didn’t fare much better. The USC product doesn’t use his hands well, and makes a habit out of being off-balance. I’m not sure if it’s a footwork thing (end zone cameras can’t get here soon enough) or a general athleticism issue, but it is an issue. He’s strong when he does the right things, but he rarely seems to be in the right position.
Speaking of strong, the 49ers left guard is a samoan Magnus Samuelsson. Obviously all NFL players are strong, particularly offensive and defensive linemen, that is why it’s so impressive when someone really stands out in this field. Mike Iupati plays high and seems a little sluggish at times, but he makes up for it by just mauling guys when he gets his hands on them. When he pulls, he will sometimes have a Nolan Ryan (a no-hitter), but when he does engage someone, he clamps on and drives them straight back.
In fact, I really think Iupati is going to look like a different player this year. As I was watching him play, there were a lot of little technical things he did that seemed odd, but that he got away with because of his physical tools. Considering how much the San Francisco staff had to install and the fact that Iupati was still effective, it makes sense that some of those technical issues were downplayed to focus on the playbook. With a full offseason under Greg Roman and Tim Drevno, a lot of those little things are going to become points of emphasis that will get corrected in OTAs and camp. I’m expecting a big leap from the former first-rounder.
Lined up to Iupati's left last year was Joe Staley. Out of all the 49ers linemen, Staley had the biggest difference in play between the Baltimore game and the playoff win against New Orleans. Staley couldn’t handle Terrell Suggs at all. For whatever reason, Staley has a bad habit of dropping his hands to his hips when there is a lot of space between him and the defender, so by the time Suggs closed that space, Staley’s hands were out of position and Suggs was into his chest. Staley’s hands were much better against New Orleans, but he also didn’t have to deal with as many wide rushes (or a player of Suggs' caliber).
On the positive side, Staley is a strong run blocker. He plays with solid pad level for a guy his size and moves his feet well after initial contact. He’s also a really fluid athlete: he pulls well on tosses and changes direction well in pass protection. Obviously I'm just working with two games, but my read is that he’s an above-average tackle who played a poor game against one of the game’s best defenders.
At right tackle is former first-rounder Anthony Davis. Schematically, Davis is a good fit for the 49ers at right tackle. He’s a strong guy who can drive defenders off the ball on the ground game. He also has quick enough feet to play outside in the passing game. He even played pretty well in both of these games ... except for the few snaps Suggs was lined up over him ... but it left you wanting more. He has the tools to be dominant, and he even shows some flashes, but he hasn't put it together yet. He’s doesn’t turn 23 until this fall, and he’s already serviceable, but he can be a lot more.
Finally, we get to Jonathan Goodwin in the middle. The veteran is solid, if unspectacular. He does a nice job blocking the back on power plays, as well as driving shaded nose guards off the ball. Where he struggles is when defenders, particularly linebackers, try to stunt across his face in pass protection. They don’t beat him clean, but he tends to end up a little bit behind them, which allows them too much penetration. It’s fine as long as he has help from a guard, but it caused some issues in man-to-man concepts.
I left the tape thinking that this was an above-average line that had a better reputation because of the style of play. They really only have one hole, and they'll have a cadre of recent draft picks to try to plug right guard with. They were solid across the board, but when you run into a team with a couple of war daddies (like Ngata and Suggs), solid isn't enough sometimes. To have an elite line, a team needs a guy they could put on island in pass protection, or run behind every snap in the running game. I think Iupati can get there, and if he does, I think that will really make a difference for the whole unit.