Staley right all along: O-line doesn't 'suck'

There is improvement almost everywhere you look with the 49ers these days, but perhaps no greater steady and consistent improvement than what is being seen by the team's offensive line. "Every aspect of their game has improved incrementally throughout the season," offensive coordinator Greg Roman said Thursday. And if that goes unnoticed, that's just fine with the Niners.

Because when line play goes unnoticed and is overshadowed in the context of winning, that usually mean that unit is doing a good job. It's usually when mistakes happen that the offensive line's play is magnified. There haven't been a whole lot of mistakes lately as the line is making great strides during San Francisco's seven-game winning streak.

The 49ers have compiled their 8-1 record on strong special teams, a tough running game and excellent defense. Yet the progress of the offensive line doesn't seem to be getting the credit it probably deserves in the team's success.

After Week 2, when the 49ers struggled running the ball and protecting the quarterback, left tackle Joe Staley issued the now famous phrase, "We don't suck." Since then, the offensive line has been excellent, particularly in the run game, where Frank Gore set a team record by rushing for 100 yards or more in five consecutive games, a streak that ended last week against the New York Giants, when Gore had zero yards on six carries.

In a 27-20 victory over the Giants that seemed to legitimize the upstart Niners as a NFL power, the offensive line consistently provided quarterback Alex Smith ample time in the pocket, particularly in the first half.

In all, Smith was sacked twice against a Giants team that had the league lead in sacks coming into the game with 28.

"I don't think those guys got enough credit," Smith said. "That defensive line, they are all elite pass rushers. The pass protection really stood out."

Staley said it was a matter of understanding a new set of blocking schemes and that sometimes that takes time.

"It takes a little longer to get completely dialed in and a 100 percent understanding of what we're doing," Staley said. "I knew all the talent we had, and we were working hard, so I 100 percent believed what I said (about not sucking)."

Roman agreed with Staley's assessment, and said it was expected that the line would take some time to absorb the new West Coast system being implemented and then get comfortable in it and, ultimately, produce in it.

"They're transition really started the day they got here," Roman said. "Learning a new system and gelling together, that certainly is part of being a good offensive line. They've done a really good job just coming in every day with a lunch pail. We look forward to that process (and improvement) to continue, but it's definitely a trend at this point.

"Those guys are working extremely hard, very detail-oriented in really all aspects, run game, pass protection, understanding the system, communication which is paramount with the offensive line. In pass protection, our backs do a great job and the tight ends have done a good job. So, we've got to continue doing a good job."

The 49ers made one lineup change with the less mistake-prone Adam Snyder replacing Chilo Rachal at right guard. Also, several players have noticed that the offensive line has become more physical and aggressive.

"When you are 100 percent confident with what you are doing, you play looser," Staley said. "That's when you can become more aggressive."

The team has also benefitted from free-agent acquisition Jonathan Goodwin. The former Pro Bowler from the Saints excels at making line calls and at getting to the linebacker level in the run game. Goodwin is also a steadying influence with his calm demeanor.

"Nothing fazes him," Smith said. "Goody fit right in the moment he got here. He's a high character, high quality guy."

Under the Harbaugh-Greg Roman system, the quarterback often calls two plays in the huddle and then chooses one based on the defense. That leaves the center to handle all the line calls and Goodwin rarely makes a mistake.

"He's real big in setting up the offense," Staley said. "He's real knowledgeable and real intelligent. You never see him making any (missed assignments)."

The 49ers have gotten measurably better play from right tackle Anthony Davis as well. He gave up 11 sacks last year and was constantly called for holding and offside penalties. He struggled in the same areas when this season began.

But Davis suddenly seems to be evolving into the player the 49ers expected when they used the No. 11 overall selection in last year's draft to obtain him. Against the Giants, Davis allowed only one pressure while going up against Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul.

"HE has definitely made improvement, very much so through the course of training camp and this season," Roman said. "He really has, I'd say, I don't want to use the word skyrocketed but he's playing at a much higher level. Success breeds confidence and confidence breeds improvement. That's what we're seeing and we need to continue to see it."

Said Smith: "The last five or six weeks, he's really made big strides. He's having a lot of fun out there. He's great to have in the huddle."

Davis is known for his chippy attitude with the opposition and his ability to crack everyone up.

"He's got a great energy and everyone feeds off it," Smith said.

Just like the San Francisco offense is feeding off the ever-improving play of its line.


---- New York's defensive strategy last week of using three safeties completely shut off Gore, who exited at the end of the second quarter with a knee injury. The Giants safeties topped the team's tackle charts with starters Antrel Rolle and Kenny Phillips combining for 10 tackles. When the 49ers have been stopped, it's usually been because of hard-hitting safety play. In their opener, when the team mustered only 85 yards on 27 carries against Seattle, Seahawk free safety Earl Thomas was all over the place and made eight tackles and strong safety Kam Chancellor checked in with nine stops. The 49ers face one of the best run stopping safeties in the game in Adrian Wilson on Sunday, and he will likely spend most of his time near the line of scrimmage looking to hunt down Gore, and rookie Kendall Hunter. It may be one reason Harbaugh continues to stress that the team would like to finish the season with a 50-50 pass-run ratio. Right now, the 49ers run 52 percent of the time, but that may change if teams continue to play their safeties in run support.

---- Alex Smith appears to have a future again with the 49ers, but he says any talk about a new contract can wait until after the season. Smith is on a one-year deal with the team that drafted No. 1 overall in 2005. "Not something I've talked about, or even really thought about," Smith said this week. "It's so early. I'm focused on playing football. That's not something I would want to think about in the middle of the season, to be honest with you. It's so fun coming to work every day with the group of guys we have, and doing what we're doing. So, not thinking about that right now."

---- Smith is severely limiting his access to the media. He talks to the media group after games and on Wednesdays and talks to the T.V. crew on Fridays, but other than that, he rarely grants one-on-one interviews, even to national outlets. "When I was young I always felt I had to say yes, (but) the focus this year is about this team and winning football games," Smith said. "That's all that gets determined about me anyways."

---- Harbaugh and the players are relishing the feeling they are getting from fans at Candlestick. For the first time in almost a decade, a 49ers ticket was hard to get against the Giants and the crowd was loud and into the game. "Just every week, the fan base, the crowd is really building behind us," Harbaugh said. "We feel it. We love it, love it, love it."

---- The Dontae Skywalker play lives. CSN Bay Area isolated the play as a 16-yard pass to Ted Ginn Jr. against the Giants. Ginn ran a comeback on the sideline while the rest of the receivers ran deep. Sgt. Skywalker is the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier who made a presentation to the team when they visited Arlington Cemetery before playing the Redskins Oct. 6.

---- Long snapper Brian Jennings is gaining national notice for his interpretation of the Penn State situation. Jennings, who has a regular appearance on KNBR-AM, said the Nittany Lions should be stripped of all wins since 2002 when allegations of child abuse first surfaced. "(Joe Paterno) can no longer be the standard for college football," Jennings said. Paterno amassed the most wins in college football before his firing.

---- The Giants left town after making some unusual comments. Wide receiver Victor Cruz, despite dropping two passes and getting a pass thrown his way intercepted by Carlos Rogers, said of Rogers, "I got the best of him all day." Running back Brandon Jacobs then told Fox reporter Pam Oliver at halftime, "They're scared." He was talking about the 49ers.

---- Rogers admitted he guessed on both of his interceptions against Giants quarterback Eli Manning. On the first one, Rogers basically ran the route for Cruz. On the second one, Rogers raced to the middle of the field and made a diving interception of a Manning pass. He said on both if the receiver cut the other way, he would have been wide open.

---- Harbaugh is a great admirer of the U.S. military and wanted to do something to honor the country on Veteran's Day. One thing he did was to have the American flag instilled into the field-goal netting behind the goal posts. "The flag is positioned behind the goalpost on the field-goal netting, it reminds me of The Big House," Harbaugh said. "If you have ever been to the Michigan Stadium, American Flag behind the goalpost, very symbolic."

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