Big Brothers getting bully along O-line

The Big Brothers along the 49ers' offensive line finally got big last week to become the kind of movers and shakers and defensive will-breakers the team has needed this season to get its floundering offense in order and its beleaguered defense off the field. And it hardly was a gradual process. In a span of 60 sustained minutes vs. Tampa Bay, the line went from struggling unit to dominant gang, a sudden transformation made even more impressive by the fact it came against the NFL's No. 1 defense.

"Them boys had a little extra fire in their butts that I didn't know about," running back Kevan Barlow said Thursday. "I noticed it big-time."

Barlow wasn't the only one. Anybody who has witnessed San Francisco's offensive line plodding through the team's first six games couldn't have seen this kind of effort coming against a Tampa Bay defense that ranked first in the NFL in six categories, including rushing defense.

But after coach Mike Nolan delivered a heart-to-heart talk with his line earlier in the week, the much maligned and criticized unit came out swinging against the big, bad Bucs and began connecting immediately with several of their blows.

"Everybody knows this game is won in the trenches," fiery second-year guard Justin Smiley said. "It started with Nolan saying that he took the leash off us, that we're going to grind it out, that it's going to be on our back to win this game. He said, ‘Hey, don't play timid. Just go out there and throw some body punches and pick some shots.' We were throwing those body punches, and at the end of the game, you get a chance to throw the knockout. "That's the difference between us and the past. We learned how to finish somebody off and how to put a team away."

A little prodding from Nolan helped push the line in that direction.

Nolan has said all along that he likes his offensive line and expects it to become a strength of the team. He delivered a message a few days before the Tampa Bay game that he was counting on that bunch of players, telling them the foundation of the offense is being built around them and to play more aggressively.

"What I was saying to them (was) it's important for the offensive line to have a big brother mindset, to be there to (protect) the skill guys," Nolan said. "We have a lot of tough guys in the group, and I wanted them to know that it's OK to be who they want to be. They want to be able to play tough and be physical."

The line took Nolan's talk to heart. San Francisco linemen were rushing to the rescue of their offensive comrades throughout the game, pulling them off the ground and pushing away defenders who lingered around them a little too long. Right tackle Kwame Harris even was flagged for a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty when he pushed away Tampa Bay safety Jermaine Phillips after a play on which Barlow gained four yards.

"I saw it the whole game," Barlow said. "Guys were coming over and defending me. When (defenders) were pushing me on the ground, my boys were over there pushing to protect me. I knew they had it in them."

But the line didn't just protect. It also attacked in a way that seldom has been seen in recent seasons. With Smiley, Harris, center Jeremy Newberry, left tackle Anthony Clement and right guard Eric Heitmann gouging holes in the NFL's top-ranked rushing defense, the 49ers gained a season-high 158 yards rushing against a team that had been allowing just 62 per game entering the contest.

But just as importantly, with two quarterbacks who hadn't previously seen any action this season handling duties behind center, the San Francisco line didn't allow a sack for the first time in 27 games.

A ball-control approach also resulted in the San Francisco offense finishing a game with no sacks and no turnovers for the first time since early in the 2000 season. The 49ers had allowed 15 sacks and committed 11 turnovers in their previous three games.

"The (no) sacks was huge," Smiley said. "It seems like we finally got some things going and we just showed how physical we can be. It gives our offensive line confidence that we played against the best and got the job done."

It also gave the entire unit the kind of positive recognition that has been in short supply this year. San Francisco's offensive line received honorable mention consideration for NFC Offensive Player of Week for its performance against the Bucs.

That recognition represented extreme improvement for a unit that had been struggling all season and was playing without its top tackle, Jonas Jennings, who's out with a torn labrum in his right shoulder.

Now that the door has been opened to that kind of performance, there's no turning back. The 49ers have seen how much quality play from the offensive line means to their success.

"You need to be able to move the line of scrimmage on offense," Harris said. "Once you're able to establish that, it just really opens the entire game for you."

Said Heitmann: "We've done things in the run game to make ourselves better every week. We keep improving and we keep building and we've got to make sure we keep doing that now. If the run game is effective and we're getting the safeties to come down, that's when the passing game opens up. Those are the types of things we need to do to keep this offense moving.

"For us, (Tampa Bay) was our best game of the year, and it's something we definitely need to build on and go out there and continue to play that way. That's the mindset we have now."

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