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

Word of Muth: Beathard's Hard Beating

Word of Muth: Beathard's Hard Beating
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Ben Muth

The Chargers beat the 49ers this past Sunday in a game that probably shouldn't have been as close as the 29-27 final score. San Francisco returned an interception for a touchdown, got an 82-yard touchdown from their tight end, benefitted from a lot of roughing the passer calls (most of them warranted), and ate up almost the entire second quarter on a 21-play, penalty-aided death march that resulted in just three points but really shortened the game. Those big plays kept things close, but ultimately Los Angeles was the better team and came away with the win.

Watching San Francisco's offense against L.A., the thing that stuck out to me was San Francisco's pass protection, or lack thereof. There were missed blitz pickups, there was trouble passing off stunts, and guys were getting beat one-on-one. The final sack numbers weren't bad at all, but backup quarterback C.J. Beathard took a hard beating. That's what we're going to focus on today.

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Obviously, this doesn't seem to be the offensive line's fault. That's the NFL's highest paid fullback Kyle Juszczyk who completely brain-farts on his assignment. Maybe he assumes because Derwin James (33) is a defensive back he is unlikely to come, but that would mean that Juszczyk hasn't really watched any film on James and the Chargers defense all year. This is the kind of mental misstep that can get guys hurt, and that's exactly what happened here.

Of course, it wasn't the quarterback that got hurt here, it was left tackle Joe Staley. James knocked Beathard right into the back of Staley's knees, and the Pro Bowl left tackle left with a knee injury and did not return. Losing Staley hurt the offense noticeably, because they lost the one lineman who was playing best up to that point, and replaced him with the guy who had the worst day up front.

Staley's injury didn't look great, but the hope is that he won't be out for too long. I hope that's the case because as I watched this play back, I immediately got a flashback of another 49ers great who had his career ended because a running back forgot to pick up a defensive back in half-slide protection. Steve Young's career was ended abruptly when Lawrence Phillips missed a corner blitz on this same protection scheme. Hopefully Joe Staley avoids that fate.

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Speaking of free runners and Joe Staley's replacement, we have this. I wasn't in the huddle or at the line of scrimmage so I don't know exactly what was called, but I do know that the plan wasn't for 295-pound Damion Square (71) to go untouched to the quarterback. Either backup left tackle Garry Gilliam is supposed to treat Kyle Emanuel (51) like a linebacker and block Square, who is lined up right over the top of him, or the 49ers decided to treat Emanuel like a down lineman/designated rusher, in which case left guard Laken Tomlinson has to slide out and block Square.

Based on how center Weston Richburg is blocking this (sliding to his right slightly, doesn't look like he expects to be man-to-man with nose tackle Brandon Mebane, 92) my guess is that Gilliam is the one that's screwed up here. Injuries are big part of the NFL, and San Francisco is dealing with a lot right now. On top of Staley, they are also missing quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (ACL, out for the season) and key free agent running back Jerick McKinnon (also a season-ending ACL). There are also guys who are only banged up like Richberg and right tackle Mike McGlinchey, who both left the game last Sunday and returned. Richberg returned to practice Thursday, and both are supposed to play this coming Sunday, but they probably aren't 100 percent.

You expect to see some dip in performance when you are playing backups, but what you can't have is total busts on assignments, especially at offensive tackle. At offensive tackle you're going to get your quarterback hit even when you're trying to block the right guy, so you can't give the defense any free shots.

via Gfycat

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Even when Gilliam was heading in the right direction, he still struggled. I thought he looked heavy-footed and lacking in change of direction throughout the second half. Melvin Ingram (54) absolutely freezes him at the top of this rush and runs right around him. From a technique point, there's not a ton to say except "move your feet faster." Gilliam gets a good set and keeps a nice base, but then he just freezes on the jab step and can't recover.

I've purposely been highlighting plays that weren't sacks to show that even though San Francisco only gave up the one sack, their pass protection was really bad. It's not just that Beathard was getting hit, it's how quick and how clean all the rushers came. These are three big hits where the rusher was totally unblocked or barely even touched.

Before we go I did want to take a quick look at rookie first-rounder Mike McGlinchey a little closer. As I mentioned earlier, McGlinchey left the game at the end of the first half with what I think was an ankle injury that wasn't 100 percent going into the game. So he's playing hurt, but even considering that I didn't think he played very well. He gave up San Francisco's lone sack, or at least he gave up the pressure that caused the quarterback to run into the sack, and it wasn't the only time he was beaten quickly.

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This was actually the first pass and only the second play of the game. Ingram is a good football player, but you never want to see a top-ten pick beaten like McGlinchey (69) is here. I'm not sure if Ingram was able to time his hands up from tape study (maybe McGlinchey always throws as his third kick-step hits the ground) or if McGlinchey's punch was uncharacteristically slow, but Ingram obviously won the hand battle here. McGlinchey's punch didn't look too slow, so it might have been the rookie being too predictable and robotic in his punch and set on tape. It'll be interesting to see if this is a recurring problem or just a bad day against a good player (Ingram also forced the sack).

And to wrap up I want to show something that I really enjoyed from a play-calling perspective. A pet peeve of mine is how announcers always go out of their way to talk about how important it is to get young or backup quarterbacks into the rhythm of the game, and how it's great to get them a few easy completions early. It always seemed odd that this literally never gets brought up for any other position. You never hear an announcer talk about running some stunts for an edge rusher early to see if you can get him an easy sack. But I think there are things you can do for young players at every position to help them get into a groove.

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This is the play after the last GIF, and the first third down of the game. Take a look at how easy Kyle Shanahan has made McGlinchey's job. He has the tight end (actually wide receiver Trent Taylor, 81) stay in at first to chip the edge guy, and he's sliding the line to that side so the rookie knows he'll have inside help. That's an offensive tackle's dream.

Because it was third-and-long when this play was called, I don't know if it was one of the scripted plays Shanahan had dialed up, or if he saw his banged-up rookie get beat the play before and wanted to give him a little extra help. Maybe it was dumb luck, where the passing concept that Shanahan liked on third-and-long just so happened to be tied to a protection that helped McGlinchey. But it was nice to see a play caller seemingly dialing up something early in the game to help a non-quarterback young player settle into the action. I loved it.


4 comments, Last at 08 Oct 2018, 3:00pm