Word of Muth
Dive into the details of offensive line play with a former all-PAC-10 left tackle

Word of Muth: Scouting the 49ers

Word of Muth: Scouting the 49ers
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

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.

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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.

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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.


21 comments, Last at 11 Jul 2012, 5:16pm

1 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the 49ers

Thanks for your interesting piece about my beloved 49ers, just one remark: the game at Baltimore was on a short week and very far from home, I guess it influenced the overall performance of the team (even though both Rachal and Snyder are not going to Canton, unless they pay the admission fee).

2 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the 49ers

Great stuff, it's nice to know that my perception of the niners line isn't so far off. I hope that you're right about Iupati's potential to improve, I think that Davis could make a leap this year too. Of course the biggest issue will be right guard again, I still think we should have made a move for Decastro (who could be counted on to step in seamlessly) or Silatolu (two Samoans!).

Just one question. What do you mean by 'a Ravens defender was able to T-bone Jonathan Godwin'?

4 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the 49ers

I believe what happened there was that Snyder was supposed to "blunt" the penetration on the play, probably getting an initial block on the Ravens player before moving on to another block - basically, chipping the guy. He failed to do so, and so the player was able to lay a good hit on Godwin from the side, driving Godwin way out of position. With Godwin knocked out of position, this opened a gap that Ngata was able to move through to get the sack.

3 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the 49ers

We mention it in the Cleveland front seven comment in the book, but in the Cleveland-San Francisco game it is pretty remarkable how often Iupati was pushing Ahtyba Rubin backwards. Just destroyed him.

6 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the 49ers

Thanks for the great analysis. Good to know some stuff to look for as I watch the Niners' line next year.

7 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the 49ers

You make a great point that "to have an elite line a team needs a guy they could put on a island in pass protection, or run behinf every snap in the running game."

Can you please list which teams in your opinion have those kind of guys?

8 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the 49ers

Good stuff as always, and finally got an experts' honest opinion on the niners OL. I don't read much on football beyond FO/ANFLS/ninersnation so it was news to me that the Niners OL has a good reputation. I mean, I guess the talking heads on the magic talking box say stuff like that but I mostly ignore them unless I want to find out why a flag was thrown.

I was pretty shocked that Staley made the pro bowl last year. There are a few guys on NinersNation who think that A. Davis should be moved to guard and he's overmatched at OT. In the run game, I thought the 2011 Niners rarely dominated in the trenches, and when FORCED to pass (3rd and long) they could not do anything. Whether that's mostly on Alex Smith, the receivers, or the line is really hard to tell. As noted, the Ravens game was something of an outlier where the OL really go blown up. They also had trouble with Dallas earlier in the year, IIRC. They *could* pass the ball well, but nearly always because defenses sold out against the run - they passed sucessfully on 1st and 10, 2nd-and-short out of 2 TE formations.

It's clear with the Niners offseason moves that they thought RG and WR were the problems (not sure how you can count the attempt to replace Alex Smith with Peyton). Throw in the fact that defense was keeping points of the board and the coaches had a conservative plan... hard to say why the Niners offense was the way it was.

10 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the 49ers

Staley made the probowl for the same reason as Jermon Bushrod, which is because somebody had to. There were no decent tackles in the NFC last year apart from Jason Peters, every young prospect got hurt and it's a very thin bunch.

As for the opinions on niners nation, the quality is about as deep as the crop of tackles in the NFC last year. Since Danny migrated over here it's Fooch and a pile of dreck.

9 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the 49ers

Thank you very much for this analysis. The quality of the line is such a polarizing topic on 49ers blogs. Anthony Davis sucks or he doesn't; Staley has lost it or hasn't; Goodwin plays like an old man or not. For an uneducated viewer, it's hard to get a grip on this damned line. Thanks for a dispassionate opinion.

I wish you'd watched a game with Alex Boone. There has been a lot of talk this off season that Davis would be better moved to Right Guard and Boone played at Right Tackle. That would likely upset Davis, but Boone has always played well at tackle when he's been asked to. Instead, Boone will probably start at Right Tackle, where he'll probably be the longest Right Tackle in the history of the game. I'd love to have gotten you take on that.

11 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the 49ers

I got the impression that the front office did think about moving Davis but didn't because they decided Boone doesn't have the lateral movement to play tackle on a regular basis. I think Matt Miaocco referred to Boone being more suited to guard for that reason. As far as I can tell the main belief that Boone should be a tackle and Davis a guard derives from Boone being tall and very little else.

18 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the 49ers

Was anyone in ARI challenging him laterally? Davis had serious problems against the Eagles speed rush, and seemed to be overcompensating all season by jumping the snap count, but I can't remember any other significant times (ok, yes, Suggs) that he had serious problems.

12 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the 49ers

Ill be curious myself to see how regression to the mean affects offensive line play, particularly from the fundamentals pt of view. I notice that ben is basically grading technique rather than strict measurements of hurries, hits and sacks given up. As we know, teams regress and progress in these stats and i wonder how much offensive linemen technique also regresses and progresses. Ben's assertion that this line has potential and really is lacking just a bit of fine tuning seems to suggest that this line is going to progress well. I guess it would be nice to fast forward a year from now to see ben's assessment.

13 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the 49ers

Random question - Does anyone know whether the 'u' in Ben's name should be pronounced as in 'muss' or as in 'Ruth'? Been wondering how to say it when I tell people about this column.

14 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the 49ers

Excellent article except for Anthony Davis review. He gets beat by all speed rushers the same way Suggs abused him whenever he lined up over him. His lateral movement is way too slow to deal with speed rushers off the edge.

17 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the 49ers

Mr. Muth, I was just thinking that if you do this again and break down all four teams in the division, it would be interesting to look at all of them against a common opponent - for instance, since they all played Baltimore, it would be cool to know how they all handled it and maybe would be able to give us a little more insight as to how any one team compares to the others. Just a thought...

20 Re: Word of Muth: Scouting the 49ers

Good idea, if Mr Muth has the time and / or inclination you could take two teams from the same division with different schemes eg the Bears zone 4-3 and the Packers' man based 3-4. That way you would see how all four teams matched two different looks. Of course this would involve watching an awful lot of tape but it isn't like you couldn't keep notes as he goes on current pace and see if any of the notes allow building the kind of comparisons you are suggesting.