Ultimate challenge awaits SF offensive line

They're big and purple and fearsome, and did we say they are big? Looking down the barrel of the 49ers' power rushing attack this week is 628 pounds of Pro Bowl beef – as in Minnesota defensive tackles Pat Williams and Kevin Williams, the twin towers of the NFL's 4th-ranked defense. That duo presents a formidable challenge for a 49ers offensive line that made major strides from Week 1 to Week 2.

But now it's Week 3, and that developing line must make another significant stride if the 49ers are to find success against the Vikings in Sunday's key NFC matchup of 2-0 teams at the Metrodome.

"It's a great challenge for us this week," said center Eric Heitmann, the veteran anchor of San Francisco's line. "They're an extremely talented group up front. The two Williams', Pat and Kevin, are both stout, quick players. They're two of the best in the league. But every week is a new challenge for us. You're going to face great players every week."

The 49ers are going places if their offensive line can continue the rate of progress it has displayed so far during the team's 2-0 start.

San Francisco's line had a breakout performance during last week's victory over Seattle after struggling the week before at Arizona. But now it gets tougher against a Minnesota team that has led the NFL in rushing defense each of the past three seasons.

"We played better and more physical up front, but we've got to get much better to get where we want to go," coach Mike Singletary said. "We're going to be as good as our offensive line takes us on offense."

The 49ers were pretty good during a 23-10 rout of the Seahawks last week. San Francisco rushed for 256 yards, its highest output since 2006, as halfback Frank Gore broke loose for 207 yards on 16 carries. That performance earned Gore NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors.

It was quantum leap over the season opener when the 49ers rushed for just 21 net yards and Gore was limited to 30 yards on 22 carries.

The difference came up front as the line consistently opened holes against an opponent that stacked the box with eight defenders. Gore scored on runs of 79 and 80 yards, becoming the second NFL player to have two touchdowns run of 75 or more yards in the same game.

That performance vaulted Gore into second place among the NFC's rushing leaders this week. The guy in front of him? That's Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, who leads the NFL with 272 yards rushing.

Even though they won't be on the field at the same time, the Gore/Peterson matchup is another to watch Sunday. The Vikings will be trying to do with Peterson what the 49ers will be trying to do with Gore. And Peterson also has a formidable challenge awaiting him against a San Francisco defense that ranks third in the NFL in stopping the run and seventh overall.

Gore and San Francisco's line met the challenge last week after being uncharacteristically shut down in the season opener.

"It's all because of those guys up front," Gore said. "They played great. You can see it on the film. There were lanes after lanes for me to run in and I just took advantage of them."

It was a big step for a line that's being counted upon this season to set the tone for the San Francisco offense with physical performance up front.

Inconsistent play along the line has been an area of concern for the 49ers, who began the season with new starters in three positions along their offensive front compared to their 2008 opener.

San Francisco ranked 27th in the NFL in rushing offense last season. The 49ers allowed a franchise-record 55 sacks each of the past two years and have had problems so far this season protecting quarterback Shaun Hill, who has been sacked four times in each of the team's first two games.

But the line seemed to settle into a groove against Seattle. The 49ers had 379 yards of offense against the Seahawks after producing just 203 the week before.

"Everything was better last week and I think it really showed," Heitmann said. "We took the corrections from the first week and were able to implement them.

"We've made incremental steps in the right direction going all the way back to spring workouts. We're on point now and working together as a unit. Our communication, our progress, we've gotten better every week and we're going to continue that process as we move forward."

The 49ers are mixing in newcomer Tony Pashos at right tackle, where starter Adam Snyder has struggled in pass protection. Pashos was acquired before the season began after being released by Jacksonville earlier this month when he refused a pay cut.

San Francisco is sticking with Snyder as the starter this week but will need steady play across the line against Minnesota's stellar front wall, which also features defensive end Jared Allen. Like the two Williams', who are not related, Allen was named to the Pro Bowl last year. Both of the Williams' have been named to the Pro Bowl each of the past three seasons.

Allen, whose 58.5 sacks since 2004 are the most in the NFL, will be going up against 49ers left tackle Joe Staley, who has not allowed a sack in San Francisco's first two games.

"He's got a high motor, he's always going," Staley said. "He's just one of those guys that just keeps coming. He has a lot of pass-rush moves. He's mainly a pass-rush guy, but he's a big dude and can hang in there in the run game, too."

The San Francisco line has hung in there so far to help the team to one of the NFL's nine unbeaten starts entering Week 3. Now comes a test to let that unit – and the team general – know where it really stands.

"It's a wonderful opportunity for our offensive line," Singletary said. "We made strides last week and here we go against what some call the best defensive line in the league. If that's the case, let's see how we stack up. If we want to be a great offensive line, we've got to find a way to block them."

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