Is O-line ready to come of age vs. Cowboys?
Ware might be, as Niners coach Jim Harbaugh suggested this week, "probably the best pass rusher in football." And keeping in light with that thought, the 49ers gave Ware special attention this week in practice, using rookie Aldon Smith to simulate Ware's role against the first offensive unit in team drills.
Smith, of course, had other things to worry about – like working on his own job with the San Francisco defense. Smith, the Niners' first-round draft pick, will have his hands full Sunday chasing around Dallas QB Tony Romo in search of his first NFL sack. But since he's one of the team's top pass rushers, and is physically similar to Ware, Smith pulled double duty to help his team prepare for the Cowboys.
San Francisco's O-line needed all the help it could get, because this is a big week in the growth of the unit. Three hours of work against the Cowboys should go a long way in determining how much progress the line really has made since a shaky preseason when San Francisco's offensive front looked unsettled at best and overmatched at its worst.
Quarterbacks Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick were sacked 12 times during the exhibition season and absorbed several other big hits that made that number appear even worse. The pass-protection problems got so bad during an Aug. 27 debacle against the Houston Texans that Staley sent a message to the rest of the line when he told writers he was "disgusted" by the play of the unit.
But Staley showed no signs of disgust Friday when he sat down with NinersDigest to discuss the encouraging progress of the line against Seattle.
The veteran beamed with pride about the growth the unit displayed against the Seahawks, when it shrugged off its previous struggles and produced a strong effort that kept Alex Smith practically untouched in the pocket.
"I kind of look at myself now as the big brother of the offensive line," said Staley, who has started every game he's played with the 49ers since joining the team as a first-round draft pick in 2007. "And it's good to see how it's coming along."
Staley continued: "Any time you have only one quarterback hit the whole game, that's a pretty good first step. As an offensive line, we want not to be noticed, and you do that by doing your job. We were on the same page, and I think it was night and day from where we were last year at this point. It's all about us being on the same page, and I'm very excited with what we did in the first game."
The excitement is going around. After such a disturbing preseason, the line's problems in pass protection during August looked like a distant memory against Seattle.
In their first try at new coach Jim Harbaugh's West Coast offensive system, the 49ers didn't allow a sack for the first time in a game since last October. Smith was hit just once the entire game and had plenty of time to work in the pocket, connecting on 15 of 20 passes for his highest completion percentage in a game since 2006.
Staley credited the improved play of youngsters Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis as key factors in the line coming together as a unit against the Seahawks.
Both players – each of whom started all 16 games last year after the 49ers drafted them in the first round – had their ups-and-downs in pass protection as rookies, and it showed as the Niners ranked 27th in the NFL last year in sacks allowed per play. Those struggles continued into the preseason this summer.
But with new veteran center Jonathan Goodwin anchoring the unit, the line and its parts wore a different look in the season opener: Confident, cohesive and now hoping to carry over some continuity to the next test against the Cowboys.
"The communication is 10 times better than it was at this point last year," Staley said. "Going into their second year, Mike and Anthony's knowledge is so much greater. You could see it last week. We all knew where each other was going to be, and when one guy's playing well it's because the guys around him are playing well too. That's the way it should be and that's what we expect of ourselves."
Staley works at left tackle next to Iupati, who was named to the NFL's All-Rookie team last season. Davis had an inconsistent rookie season on the other side of the line, but he also took an encouraging step forward in the opener.
According to statistical figures compiled by Pro Football Focus, Davis was the only tackle in the NFL last season that was responsible for double-digit totals in penalties, sacks and quarterback hits. But Davis says that is behind him, and he also played a big part in keeping Alex Smith's jersey clean last week.
"We've gotten a lot better," Davis said. "It's nothing we didn't know we could do. Now we just have to keep working at it. If you're working hard enough, you don't have time to see what everyone else is talking about."
Everyone's talking about Ware and the Cowboys this week. Ware led the NFL with 15½ sacks last year, and every San Francisco lineman figures to get a look at him Sunday as the Cowboys move him around and bring him from all angles in the pass rush.
And it's not like Ware is the only player the 49ers will have to be wary of along Dallas' strong defensive front.
"It will be a big test for us and a great challenge, no question about it," Harbaugh said. "They make it tough for you to protect the passer – that area and many others. But I think our guys are up for it."
Up for it? Just like they will be for every game this season, Staley said.
"They have more notoriety because they're the Cowboys and they get covered more, but this is the NFL, and we're going to treat it like any other game," Staley said.
"Our job is very simple: Protect the quarterback and open holes. It's the same goal, the same standard every week, and the goals never change. We just want to do our job, and that's to protect the quarterback. We shouldn't be getting all hyped up just because we did our job last week."
But if they do it again in similar fashion against the Cowboys, then it's time to let the hype begin.
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