Can 49ers keep Hill upright?

If the 49ers are to climb from the depths of the NFL behind Shaun Hill, they must make sure their new starting quarterback is not swallowed alive in an avalanche of sacks like his beleaguered, turnover-prone predecessor. And, considering all the time J.T. O'Sullivan spent on his back during the first half of the season, that appears to be something that's easier said than done.

The 49ers, of course, must attempt to do it anyway, because there is no way the team can succeed in turning around its season after a dismal 2-6 start if the pass protection for Hill doesn't improve substantially once the season's second half begins with Monday night's nationally-televised game at Arizona.

The 49ers have allowed a NFL-high 34 sacks at midseason and are on a pace to obliterate the franchise record of 55 allowed last season. Heck, at their current pace, they'll smash that mark by the first week of December.

The inability to protect O'Sullivan was one of the team's glaring deficiencies during the five-game losing streak the 49ers bring out of their bye week and take with them this weekend to Arizona for a rematch of the season opener between the two teams.

O'Sullivan was sacked four times in the game – and eight times the next week at Seattle – and that was the beginning of him being bounced around like a pinball in the pocket throughout much of the first half.

But now O'Sullivan no longer is San Francisco's starting quarterback. He has been replaced by Hill, the seventh-year veteran who will bring a different look to offensive coordinator Mike Martz's detailed system that has helped this year to lift the league's worst offense of 2007.

But that improvement – the 49ers rank 24th in the NFL in total offense this week after finishing a dead-last 32nd last year – has come at the expense of San Francisco's quarterback being exposed and dumped much too frequently in Martz's high-risk, high-reward attack.

"That's definitely something we're trying to get right," said Hill, who was sacked twice himself after taking over for O'Sullivan at halftime of San Francisco's last game, a 34-13 loss to Seattle on Oct. 26. O'Sullivan was sacked three times in the first half before departing the game in favor of Hill.

After Hill played well to finish that game – completing 15 of 23 passes for 173 yards during the second half in his first action of the season – coach Mike Singletary decided during the bye week to make the quarterback switch stick. Hill will make just his third NFL start Monday – and his first on the road.

San Francisco's hopes of finishing strong will rely upon keeping Hill upright. The team's protection problems contributed to O'Sullivan fumbling 11 times – six of them lost – and throwing 11 interceptions in eight games. He leads the league with 17 turnovers – more than the total of 29 other NFL teams – and the 49ers are tied for the league lead with 20.

"That doesn't concern me," Hill said. "I guess when you're out there playing, you just go and play each play and you're not sitting there worried about that. You just kind of react to it."

Others have been worrying about it for Hill. The 49ers have made some recent personnel changes along their offensive line, which will have David Baas starting at left guard on Monday and Adam Snyder starting for the first time this season at right tackle.

With Singletary in charge, the 49ers also plan to focus on a more physical approach that could take some pressure off the pass protection.

"Hopefully, we can run the ball a little more effectively and we can work in play-action," Singletary said. "And hopefully our offensive line will gain more continuity going forward with the rotation. They'll kind of know who's going to be there week in and week out, day in and day out, and so there's that trust factor that helps it well. It's not a new guy next to you each game or each practice, so that certainly helps. I've got to feel that's going to be a big plus for us."

Another potential plus is the team worked on some scheme modifications during the bye week to improve its pass protection.

"We've changed a couple of different techniques during the bye week to help eliminate (sacks), to try to get more help out to the tackles," said center Eric Heitmann, the veteran anchor of the team's line.

"As far as how we're playing as an offensive line, we just have to continue to protect as long as the quarterback needs us to," Heitmann continued. "Every week that's always a priority and something that as an offensive line you pride yourself on. The way our offense is run, there's a lot of opportunities for big plays and that constitutes having to hold onto the ball a little longer. So, as an offensive line, we've got to protect longer."

One of O'Sullivan's problems might have been that he held the ball too long in the pocket. That shouldn't be as much of an issue with Hill, who has a quick release and is likely to take more shorter drops than O'Sullivan as Martz tailors the offense to suit Hill's strengths.

"I'm excited for the opportunity for Shaun and to see what he does with it," Martz said. "There's a lot of pieces around Shaun, or whoever's playing quarterback, that we're trying to get settled. There are a lot of factors involved with those sacks and I would not put them all on the offensive line. This is part of getting guys on the same page and fighting through this and we are pretty close to that, we really are."

They'd better be. Because another team record for ignominy is only 19 sacks away. It took the 49ers only four games in September to reach that total earlier this season.



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