NinersDigest Q&A: What to do about O-line?
Q: Over the last several years there have been plenty of places to point fingers for our lack of success. We have had a revolving door of HCs and OCs, Alex (Smith) has proven to be less than what was expected when drafted No. 1 overall, but in my opinion there has been a constant in our offensive tragedy and that is our offensive line. We have recently spent three first-round picks attempting to fix that problem and in all honesty we sure don't look like it and I'm not basing that on just our recent game against the Saints. The fact is we didn't look that good on the offensive line last year, not for the investments we have made in it. Do you think coach Harbaugh has an answer for that and if so, any idea of what it might be or what direction he may take?
Craig Massei: It all starts up front in the NFL, so gldnwht is right on target with this. There has been a word for San Francisco's offensive line most of the past decade: Bad. That's harsh, because it's actually difficult to be downright bad in the NFL, but it's the truth. Even when the parts looked promising, either the cohesion or coaching or continuity wasn't there. Those are the three big Cs that every offensive line needs to be enduringly successful. That's what the 49ers are looking for this year, and it's one reason why line coach Mike Solari was one of only three assistants retained by Harbaugh from last year's coaching staff. The Niners wanted to work on the other two Cs this year by allowing their young high draft picks to continue to grow together. There was a big hole left at center when David Baas left in free agency, but the Niners took care of that by signing free agent Jonathan Goodwin. They should be fine there now with Goodwin, who could be an upgrade over Baas and definitely is an upgrade over Adam Snyder. Center might be the easiest position for an offensive lineman to adapt to with a new team because the requirements of the position don't change as much from team to team. Now, you are correct about the line having problems last year, but there was some definite improvement towards the end of the year and even some C&C action going on there. Upon further review, I wouldn't put too much into what happened in New Orleans. There really wasn't a lot of preparation on San Francisco's side as far as being ready for the Saints' blitzing defense to treat it like a playoff game from the opening snap. That said, there needs to be marked improvement from that night to what we'll be seeing on Sept. 11. The first-round investments have been heavy and necessary on this unit, and first-round investments need to pay dividends for a team to build a winner. The 49ers hit the jackpot with Iupati, he's already one of the best young guards in the league and will be a complete player once he matures as a pass blocker. I also think the Niners are in good shape with Staley, who will stay at left tackle until the 49ers can find somebody better there, though he'd probably be a more ideal fit at right tackle. Davis is still so young and it's still so early in his career to get an accurate gauge on him. He has the skills and nimble feet to be a successful NFL tackle, so the 49ers will keep sending him out there to give him experience while they evaluate whether somebody else (Boone? Snyder?) could help them more in the immediate short term. That leaves Rachal, who also has legitimate skills, but he's as close as any of the regular starters to seeing the bench right now. Harbaugh and his staff aren't just sitting around after the New Orleans debacle, they are making contingency plans by giving Snyder some snaps in place of Rachal and Boone some snaps in place of Davis this week. So if changes have to be made before the season, they will make them. But right now, that would be considered a drastic measure. With the lockout and all, it's still early in the process of developing starters or starting units at any position. This line as it's currently configured still can get on track before the season starts. The next few weeks of August preparation will be crucial. So don't start worrying. Yet.
Q: I have defended Alex Smith every season and I still believe in him as our QB for the next few years. One of my excuses for him is the pressure that he faces year in and year out. He has been sacked too much, rushed too much, and hurt a few times because he was hit pretty hard, and by D-linemen – not blitzers if I remember correctly. How many of the sacks and pressures that he has taken are his fault to not making the correct pre-snap reads?
CM: Definitely a proportional amount. Smith might deserve some of your excuses because he's taken a lot of punishment and heavy hits since joining the 49ers. But then there's this: Smith doesn't get the ball out fast enough. That's one of his weaknesses as a quarterback. He also gets flustered too often if his first read isn't there, instead of quickly going to his secondary reads. That causes plays to break down around him and leaves him with nowhere to go except to the ground on a sack or on a mad scramble that leaves Smith looking to slip away from defenders in the middle of the field or beat them around the edge to avoid a negative play. Now, that's just to point out what happens with Smith in a general sense. There are a lot of sacks that aren't his fault – usually the blame belongs to the O-line – and it's not like the above appraisal of Smith under pressure happens all the time in those situations. But they happen enough to suggest that Smith, for such an athletic quarterback who also possesses decent mobility, is at least occasionally responsible for his own downfall when he is going down.
Q: Our running backs didn't look good in protection either. Is there any chance or rumblings about bringing in another veteran back for insurance, say Brian Westbrook?
CM: Again, a lot of the problems against New Orleans were preparation problems. Frank Gore is actually a very good blocking tailback, particularly for his size, and he has been very consistent in that area in recent years. The New Orleans game might have been the worst I have ever seen Gore in pass protection over a select sample of plays, and since he's such a gamer, you have to attribute that to him just not being exactly sure of his assignments in an offense he's been practicing in fewer than two weeks. That's not to make excuses for Gore, but he's typically very solid in this area, and since he's in the game so often, he'll be doing a lot of the pass-protecting when that's the assignment of the tailback. Fullback Moran Norris is OK in pass protection, he probably could be better, but Anthony Dixon and rookie Kendall Hunter need a lot of work just to learn protection schemes, more less execute them properly. Don't expect to see either in the game much when the tailback's role will be to pick up onrushing defenders. That said, the answer is no, because the 49ers like their tailbacks enough to not feel an urgent need to bring in another just to address a minor deficiency – that is, the role of backup tailback in pass-protection situations.
Q: It's no secret the 49ers weren't ready for the 18 first-half blitzes against the Saints leading to six sacks. In practices since then, has Fangio been disguising coverage and bringing the heat against the offense? If so, how has the offense been handling it?
CM: Yes, there has been some of that, but it hasn't necessarily been as a reaction to what happened in New Orleans. Having had only 12 practice sessions as a team – and nearly half that with their starting quarterback – the 49ers really were in their infant stages of coming together as an offense against the Saints. To say that the offense in particular – and probably the team in general – wasn't ready to play a game last Friday would not be an understatement. And that's not from a preparation standpoint, that's from an experience standpoint. The 49ers hadn't quite got around to spending a lot of time on seven-man blitz pickup before their first preseason game. They're working more on it now, but it's not like they're devoting hours of practice to it this week. On the flip side, Fangio also still is installing his blitz schemes, which should be a major factor in the way San Francisco's revamped defense comes at opponents this year. Generally, in practice – even before the New Orleans game – the offense has done well enough picking up the blitz, which hasn't been shown much by the defense in team drills. Here's what Fangio had to say this week when asked whether he usually waits to blitz during the preseason: "I use the preseason pretty much to – I like to use it as an evaluation tool for our defense as a whole and as each and every individual. I've gone into some games and blitzed more than other ones in the preseason, but particularly last week in our case, comparing it to (New Orleans), they're in their third or fourth season with that defense with a lot of their same players. We wanted to keep it simple last week so our guys felt comfortable in playing hard and playing confident, and that is what worked best for us. They took a different approach, which is fine, some people do that. You find in preseason games, some defenses will major in something; this week we're going to blitz a lot, next week we're going to play a lot of zone. Everybody has a different way of doing it and last week they chose to do that, which is fine, there's nothing wrong with that." So, let's just say – particularly compared to what they faced last Friday – the 49ers still are keeping it relatively simple in practice.
Q: Curious to get an opinion on the differences or similarities between Trent Baalke and Scott McCloughan?
CM: Baalke is much more cut from the standard mold of a general manager than McCloughan ever was. That's not a slam on McCloughan, who definitely had a keen eye for talent. But he just never seemed cut out for the role – and certainly never seemed comfortable in it – after it was thrust upon him when Nolan was stripped of some of his authority in 2008. With the Nolan regime crumbling, it seemed like the 49ers thought they had to hastily get a GM in the house at that time, so McCloughan seemed like the best person to turn to, because he was the only guy in the building that had some qualifications for the job. But not enough of them, as it turned out. Baalke seems to have more of the necessary qualities, and that may be because he's been around longer, has more NFL contacts, and knows how the system works a little better. He's straightforward and proactive, and there appears to be no lack of self-confidence that he knows what he's doing and he's doing it right. With McCloughan, it always seemed like he was a little out of place in the role, a little too shy for such a bold position. So those are some major differences, and it's pretty obvious who has the better qualities for the job.
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