Passing Game or Rush Attack: Where Will the 49ers See the Biggest Improvement?
Winston Zeddemore: We have the tools, and we have the talent!
Dr. Peter Venkman: It’s Miller time!
One day, I want to read an in-depth book about quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s first five starts for the San Francisco 49ers. [SB1] I don’t know if I’ve ever witnessed one player taking immediate control of a team and ooze so much infectious confidence that it helped poor players become serviceable starters.
Veteran guard Laken Tomlinson played his worst games when Brian Hoyer was starting at quarterback, and his play was mediocre when C.J. Beathard was calling plays.
On December 3, 2017, Tomlinson began a streak of five games where he put up some of his top Pro Football Focus grades in 2017. In fact, he played his two best games in Weeks 16 and 17.
Many of my contributions to 49ers Hub surround offensive line play, and that’s due to my firm belief that wins and losses begin with the five men providing running lanes and creating passing pockets.
The world is expecting the 49ers to improve statistically and in the win column this year, but when the final gun sounds this season, which will improve more: the passing attack or run game?
Today, let’s isolate the offensive line and see where the 49ers may see more improvement: the passing attack or running game.
Quick note: For discussion’s sake, I’m listing the following men as this year’s starting offensive line.
LT: Joe Staley
LG: Joshua Garnett
C: Weston Richburg
RG: Erik Magnuson
RT: Mike McGlinchey
I know running back Carlos Hyde is not with the 49ers anymore, but his statistics provide a necessary baseline on the team’s running game. And, I’m well-aware the divergent offensive philosophies, structures, tempo, and terminologies between former head coach Chip Kelly and current head coach Kyle Shanahan.
Fact: In 2016, Hyde ran behind a make-shift offensive line that sometimes included Zane Beadles, Marcus Martin and John Theus in the starting lineup. However, through these turn style-like players, Hyde had nearly 1,000 yards rushing despite playing in 13 games.
In 2017, Hyde didn’t get much more help up front. Beadles had five starts, and there were moments when Tomlinson played like he couldn’t block a rusted shopping cart that was missing four wheels.
In spite of these difficulties, Hyde gained 1,926 yards, scored 14 rushing touchdowns and averaged 4.25 yards per attempt over two seasons. The man had to grind out every yard because the men in front of him often missed blocks or created no running lanes.
Here’s an example of how poorly the 49ers’ run game looked last year.
In a Week 5 matchup against Indianapolis, the 49ers rushed 22 times for a whopping 66 yards and no touchdowns. It was one of their worst rush performances of the year.
Pro Football Focus gave a negative rush grade for four the five starting linemen; tackle Trent Brown, who has since been dealt to New England, received a -5.8 run block grade for the afternoon.
There is not a running back on the planet or soul drifting aimlessly in the infinite ethos who can gain significant yardage behind an offensive line that cannot block.
Despite the poor performance in Indianapolis, Shanahan’s 2017 rush offense ranked 21st overall in yards, 9th in touchdowns (15 rush TDs) and 15th in yards per attempt (4.1 yards/attempt).
Positive factors that will help bring significant improvements to the running game are drafting McGlinchey, a very healthy Joshua Garnett taking over at left guard, and the addition of running back Jerick McKinnon in the offseason.
McKinnon looks like he’ll be a better fit at running back than Hyde due to his ability to tap the speed force nearly every time he has the ball.
After Shanahan named Garoppolo the starting quarterback last year, I penned a commentary regarding the unofficial quarterback experiment occurring at 4949 Centennial Boulevard.
In typical internet fashion, the idea of Shanahan acting like a white-haired quarterback scientist was met with great fear and extensive loathing.
Take a moment and consider: Shanahan had three quarterbacks operate the same offense, with a similar starting roster, behind the same offensive line, and play in nearly the same number of games.
The winner of the experiment, and the man who gets to date the homecoming queen was Garoppolo.
The gods and angels in the cosmos, along with the mere mortals still on earth are all excited to see what Garoppolo can do this fall after a full offseason working with his linemen and learning the characteristics of Shanahan’s playbook.
I do not doubt that Garoppolo will have a successful 2018 season, though I won’t venture an estimate on his end-of-season numbers. Frankly, I’d like to see Garoppolo lose a few games to see how he responds.
What keeps me up at night is the obstacle keeping the passing game from rising to glory: a lack of maturity.
Joe Staley is the only offensive lineman with any substantial expertise. If my guess at this year’s offensive line is accurate, the average NFL experience among Garnett, Richburg, Magnuson, and McGlinchey is 2.5 years.
Garnett only has 11 NFL starts under his belt, and missed all of last year due to injury.
Richburg is a veteran and entering his fifth season, but must master a new playbook, audibles, and line checks. He must become the in-game leader for the offensive line quickly.
McGlinchey’s 2018 season is cloudy. On paper and film, he has the talent to succeed in professional football. But his tape doesn’t show him battling someone like Von Miller for 70 offensive plays, and it doesn’t show him handling a vicious stunt with three people attacking the C and D gaps. I’m confident in McGlinchey’s ability to pave a clear path for the running backs, but he’ll have to work double time to make sure his pass blocking is above average by Week 1.
Faster Backs and Reliable Run Blockers Means a Better Running Game
The sky is always the limit for every offense and every NFL team when it’s May 22, especially when the 49ers’ rush offense finished last year toward the bottom of the league.
When Shanahan helped the Atlanta Falcons reach the Super Bowl, his rush offense ranked 5th in the NFL, oddly enough, just behind that of the 49ers. His offense demands a balanced attack, not just relying on the lightning bolt arm of Garoppolo.
Garoppolo will have an excellent year in the air, but the improvements at offensive line will allow the 49ers to finish a top-ten rushing offense at the end of this season.
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