Pass protection? Niners have long way to go

The 49ers have the makings of a pretty good run-blocking offensive line, but they still have work ahead of them to become a complete unit that also holds up well in the vital area of pass protection. That's no secret to anybody who has seen the Niners play in recent seasons, but a formula developed recently by illustrates just how poor the team has been in protecting its QBs.

The web site, which goes in depth to analyze the finer details of the game, this month ranked the 49ers 26th in the NFL in team pass protection rating, an evaluation based on a statistical formula broken down into several categories that includes pressure allowed (quarterback sacks, hits and hurries), number of pass snaps (the 49ers attempted 500 passes in 2010) and average number of blockers used per pass play.

The rankings that surface from this formula correlate to the hard facts seen by most general football observers: The 49ers allowed 44 sacks in 2010. Only five other NFL teams allowed more.

Since sacks allowed are a general indicator of pass protection prowess, the 49ers need to improve in this area to improve as a team. Again, no big secret. But there also are a lot of individual areas where the line needs to improve to get better as a unit.

Since rival defenses were able to load up against the run in 2010 while opposing a predictable offensive pattern, the 49ers often faced defenses that had a good idea what was coming on passing downs. The results show that the 49ers struggled almost to a man in these circumstances.

One player struggled more than others. Rookie right tackle Anthony Davis, the first-round draft pick who started all 16 games in his first season last year, produced the third-worst pass blocking efficiency (PBE) rating in the league among right tackles.

The PBE is a formula Pro Football Focus applied to each NFL offensive lineman with at least 200 snaps in pass protection last year. The formula equates a quarterback hit or hurry to 0.75 of a sack. Here's the breakdown of how the formula is derived:

((Sacks + (0.75 * Hits) + (0.75 * Hurries)) / Pass Pro Snaps) * 100

The lower number produced by this formula, the better. Davis, playing 588 snaps that began as passing plays – the most of any San Francisco tackle in 2010 – had a PBE of 7.99. The right tackle with the best PBE, Seattle's Sean Lockler, finished at 3.08.

In this formula, the league's best tackle in pass protection last season was Miami left tackle Jake Long with a 2.71 PBE. Surprisingly, San Francisco veteran Barry Sims made the top 15 (at No. 15) at left tackle with a 5.24 PBE. Sims, who started the final seven games of the season after regular Joe Staley suffered a fractured fibula in mid-November, played 234 passing snaps, by far the fewest of among the leaders on this list.

Staley, who played 338 passing snaps before being injured, ranked as the league's 12th-worst left tackle with a PBE of 6.14.

So, using this formula, San Francisco's starting tackles were hardly up to par in pass protection last season, and they are the two players that usually face the most withering pressure on passing downs.

San Francisco's offensive guards fared better. Rookie Mike Iupati started all 16 games for the 49ers at left guard and young veteran Chilo Rachal started 14 games at right guard. Neither appeared among the league's bottom 20 guards, which means each had a PBE of 4.09 or better.

Pro Football Focus listed only the top and bottom players at each position. The top-rated guard was Cincinnati's Bobbie Williams with a PBE of 1.59. The 20th-best guard was St. Louis' Richie Incognito at 2.72. The PBE of both Iupati and Rachal fell somewhere between 2.73 and 4.09.

Rachal has been wildly inconsistent since becoming a starter as a rookie in 2008 and often is considered a weak link in San Francisco's pass protection. He struggled in that area over the first half of last season, ultimately being benched in favor of veteran Adam Snyder, who started at right guard in place of Rachal in Week 10. But Rachal displayed significant progress over the second half of the season, finishing the year with five sacks and 15 quarterback hurries allowed.

While Iupati, Rachal and center David Baas all gave the 49ers good inside push for their run game, Baas also struggled in pass protection, according to this formula.

Baas, who had a solid season overall in his first year as San Francisco's starting center, winning the Bobb McKittrick award as the team's top offensive lineman of 2010, ranked as the league's fifth-worst center with a PBE of 3.27 based on 574 passing snaps. Indianapolis' Jeff Saturday, the league's top center, had a minuscule PBE of 0.80 in 746 passing snaps.

The 49ers also had low ratings at the secondary pass-blocking positions. Vernon Davis, generally known as a strong blocker, placed No. 8 among the league's bottom tight ends with a PBE of 6.16, with statistics showing he allowed five total pressures during the 69 pass-blocking snaps he played in 2010.

Frank Gore missed San Francisco's final five games last season with a fractured hip and did not appear in this year's top 15 or bottom 15 in PBE among running backs. But in Pro Football Focus' survey of NFL running backs between 2008-2010, Gore ranked No. 11 among the league's bottom performers at the position with a PBE of 6.44, allowing 24 pressures in 299 pass blocking snaps.

Gore appeared as a blocker in more passing snaps than all but one running back listed in the 2008-2010 survey, an indication he's on the field far too often in those contact situations and was being overworked by the team's previous coaching regime.

Taken both as a whole and individually, these ratings paint the 49ers as inferior in pass-blocking situations. That's an area in which Jim Harbaugh and his new coaching staff – which includes a new offensive line coach in Tim Drevno – has much to do this summer to improve, and Pro Football Focus just showed us why.

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