Trench Warfare: Grading the Offensive and Defensive Line Performance


The first week of professional football leaves fans with one of two emotions: outbursts of unexplainable joy and optimism or wretched, debilitating sorrow and melancholy.

The yin and yang of emotions stem directly from a nine-month offseason, loaded with hollow hyperbole and blind faith. Once Week 1 rolls around, the favorite team must blow-out the opponent to satisfy the boiling excitement. A loss, even if it’s a close game, leads fans down a path of wild conclusions and venting extreme what-if theories based on anger, rather than reality.

The Offensive Line: Not Incredibly Awesome

It’s critical to point out two clear facts: The 49ers’ offensive line opened the 2018 season against one of the NFL’s top defenses that included a 2017 All-Pro defensive lineman. Unfortunately, the 49ers do not have enough skill on the offensive line to compete with top tier teams.

I’ve noted time and again the importance of building the interior positions, and been heavily critical of the 49ers lack of ability to find two good guards to play alongside center Weston Richburg.

On Sunday, the 49ers’ reaped what they sowed in the offseason.

The interior line positions gave up at least eight hurries and eight pressures according to Pro Football Focus.

Right guard Mike Person, who left the game early with a foot injury, allowed one hurry and one pressure. I noted that he missed a run block on the 49ers’ first possession that resulted in a one-yard loss.

On the 49ers second possession, Person gave up a pressure that resulted in a sack. As you can see, Vikings’ defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson hardly put a move on Person, but blew right by him to collapse an already crumbling pocket.

Richardson was credited with a half-sack, though Pro Football Focus did not credit list a sack on Person’s stat line.

Left guard Laken Tomlinson returned to his subpar play. He allowed four hurries, four pressures, struggled with the run block and received a yellow flag for holding. What a great day for a $10 million investment.

Even the 49ers’ tackles struggled against the Vikings’ relentless pursuit. Veteran Joe Staley had an off day, allowing a hit on Garoppolo, along with four hurries and five pressures.

After Person and his backup, Josh Garnett, both succumbed to injury, the 49ers found themselves in the worst possible situation: Kyle Shanahan was forced to move rookie tackle Mike McGlinchey to right guard and play veteran Garry Gilliam at right tackle.

McGlinchey had tough day pass blocking. Pro Football Focus gave him a 44.8 pass blocking grade, which was the second lowest grade for the offensive line.

Gilliam played 32 snaps and had the offensive line’s worst statistics. He allowed one sack, one hit, three hurries, and five pressures.

The biggest issue is the Ghost of Bad Offensive Linemen continuing to lurk in the 49ers’ executive office. In the offseason, his heavy chains of damnation echo down the scarlet hallway and whispering ghoulish advice to general manager John Lynch on who should protect the quarterback. The Ghost heads to the sidelines once the season begins; he swings his rusted scythe at 49er linemen, taking knees and ankles as a sacrificial gift to an evil deity.

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While I applaud McGlinchey for stepping up to play entirely out of position, my fury with the executive office rages with the searing fires of Muspelheim. It's far beyond time to find quality backup offensive linemen who do not resemble a freeway onramp.

Overall Grade: C+, but I’m grading on a curve due to the opponent. My original grade was a C-minus, but the offensive line earned extra credit when McGlinchey finished the day playing guard.

The Defensive Line: Still the Team’s North Star

Before we begin crafting a book of psalms to DeForest Buckner, please note the following statistics: the 49ers' defensive line allowed 3.6 yards per rush on 32 attempts. These men also sacked quarterback Kirk Cousins three times for a loss of 17 yards and kept the Vikings third-down efficiency to well under 50 percent.

Of course, there are seven other players on defense who contributed to these numbers, but small victories begin at the line of scrimmage.

Both Buckner and Arik Armstead played excellent games; Armstead finished the day with five tackles and three stops. Pro Football Focus awarded Armstead an 82.8 run defense grade.

Buckner looked like last season didn’t end. He was causing headaches for the Vikings’ offensive line all day and had seven tackles, two-and-a-half sacks, and four stops.

I also noted defensive end Cassius Marsh had two hurries, a stat confirmed by Pro Football Focus. Marsh went mostly unnoticed on Sunday. He had an 84.9 run defense grade from Pro Football Focus, and also added two run stops. Overall, Marsh finished the day with three tackles.

The apparent error fell upon the shoulders of Solomon Thomas. On a fourth-and-1, the Vikings lined up in a heavy formation. Cousins barked out signals and dummy calls, shifting his players around.

The whole stadium, along with the boys 1,455 miles away at the R-Bar in Boise, ID, knew Cousins was trying to bait the 49ers into jumping offsides.

Alas, Thomas didn’t get that memo. Thomas’s error didn’t make or break the game, but it was part of a day of mental blunders committed by the 49ers on both sides of the ball.

Overall Grade: B+. I’d like to see defensive coordinator Robert Saleh let Buckner and Armstead provide the needed pressure, rather than blitz and leave the flat uncovered. Giving a quarterback like Cousins easy short throws is a recipe for disaster.

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