49ers' O-line turning into strength of the offense

October 5, 2012, 3:54 pm
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SANTA CLARA -- At the beginning of last season, the 49ers could not run the ball, quarterback Alex Smith was under constant pressure, and the team had already benched one offensive lineman.The 49ers' offensive line was generally considered one of the team's biggest question marks.Nobody is questioning the 49ers' offensive line now. In fact, the line might be the team's strongest position on that side of the ball.
"(They're) big, strong and physical," Bills coach Chan Gailey said this week in a conference call with Bay Area reporters. The Bills will come to Candlestick Park on Sunday to face the 49ers.
"They are playing extremely well," Gailey continued. "They're a strong bunch. They're probably overall, the best group we've played this year. I mean, they are playing well together now."How well?Each of the 49ers' five starting offensive linemen is improved over a year ago and ranks in the top four at their respective positions in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus' rating system that takes into account pass protection, screen blocking, run blocking and penalties.Right guard Alex Boone and right tackle Anthony Davis are second at their respective positions. Boone ranks ahead of Mike Iupati as a guard and behind only Baltimore's Marshal Yanda as the top guard in the NFL. Iupati is the highest-rated left guard in the league. Left tackle Joe Staley and center Jonathan Goodwin both rank fourth at their spots."They're playing really well," 49ers quarterback Alex Smith said. "Everything we do starts with them, run and pass, starts up front. Those guys know that. We put a lot on them, and every week they seem to step up."Smith explained further the responsibilities of the line."Not just physically, mentally," he said. "Every week you can turn on the film - you play Minnesota, you play Green Bay -- with those fronts they get after the passer. A lot of the time you're seeing, every team is helping them, every team chips, every team slides, seven-man protections, eight-man protections, things like that. We put a lot on those guys. A lot of times we ask them to man up and it's one-on-one, and you've got to get it done and they do. It's a credit to them."Staley has had the most difficult assignments.He was asked to block Green Bay's Clay Matthews and Minnesota's Jared Allen one-on-one for most of those games. Matthews got past him for parts of three sacks, and Allen had a sackforced fumble at the end of the 49ers' loss to the Vikings. Staley's pass protection rating remains favorable because he allowed no other pressures in those games, and was dominant against the Detroit Lions and New York Jets.
Smith has been sacked 12 times in four games, but he has generally been afforded the time to throw from a clean pocket. Some of his sacks are from holding onto the ball and trying to extend the play.A year ago through four games, Smith had been sacked 14 times. Also, the 49ers averaged just 3.4 yards per rushing attempt. With four of the five starters on the offensive line returning, the continuity shows. This season, the 49ers are averaging 5.4 yards per rushing attempt, which ranks second in the league.
When asked how much that cohesion has meant to the line, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh answered, "Quite a bit. Cohesive group, enjoys each others' company. Respects each others' ability and each others' work ethic. Experience of playing amongst each other, are all key factors."The conversion of Boone from the top backup tackle to a starter at right guard has proven to be, well, a boon for the 49ers.Last season, the 49ers struggled to find an answer at right guard. Chilo Rachal opened the season as the starter but was benched at halftime of the third game. Adam Snyder stepped in and played the remainder of the season.The 49ers made no attempt to re-sign Snyder as an unrestricted free agent, and he signed a five-year, 17.5 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals. Before the Cardinals' game Thursday night, in which they allowed nine quarterback sacks against the St. Louis Rams, Snyder ranked last among all guards in the PFF rating system.Offensive coordinator Greg Roman appears satisfied with the play of the line, but he believes even-better days are ahead."I think we're just working for that consistency week-in week-out, down-in down-out," Roman said. "(I) feel that they can be an elite group. And I think they're working towards that. At times they are that. We've just got to keep working to where it's all the time, regardless of opponent. We're working towards that. So, those guys have a great attitude and that's where it all starts."

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