Twenty-First Century Trench Warfare: How the 49ers Offensive Line Became an Asset
Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
In a season where positives have been hard to come by, the new-look offensive line put together by head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch is something that the new regime can hang their hat on. The offensive line as it’s currently built is a far cry from the maulers that made up the power running game of the Harbaugh era, instead harking back to the smaller, more nimble offensive lines coached by 49er legend Bobb McKittrick.
While the offensive line wasn’t necessarily bad last year, they weren’t built in the mold of what Shanahan was looking for. 49er fans have no shortage of reasons to curse former GM Trent Baalke, but one thing Baalke understood was that games are won in the trenches and he never shied away from investing in the offensive line. But due to Baalke’s beliefs and preferences, most players on the offensive line that carried over to the new regime were simply square pegs forced into round holes.
Shanahan and Lynch made shrewd moves to rebuild this offensive line in a relatively short amount of time. First former first-round pick Laken Tomlinson was brought in from Detroit, and while he struggled early on, he eventually found his groove and has proven himself to be a reliable left guard next to stalwart Joe Staley. Free agents Mike Person and Weston Richburg were brought in to help reshape the line. Person has seen a career rejuvenation posting the highest Pro Football Focus grade of his career at 69.2, good enough for 18th overall in the NFL. On the other hand, Richburg is posting his lowest grade, 54.6, and is currently ranked 28th in the NFL at the center position. But the move that solidified the offensive line moving forward was the selection of Joe Staley’s “little brother,” Mike McGlinchey, out of Notre Dame. McGlinchey has dominated the running game on the right side of the line, where PFF has him ranked as the number-one run blocking tackle in football and number nine overall.
This new-look offensive line, featuring two free agents and a rookie, has consistently ranked in PFF’s top 10. The 49ers currently boast the second-best rushing attack in the league behind the LA Rams. The offense has 962 yards rushing with a 5.0 yards-per-carry average; those numbers are even more impressive when you consider that the team has been without their starting halfback, and that their backup halfback has missed time this season with a number of nagging injuries.
You have to throw the ball to succeed in today’s NFL, there’s no debate to that. But you must keep teams honest and the only way to do that is have success on the ground. The 49ers have figured out the second part of the equation. The running attack that Shanahan has been able to build in only two offseasons is already one of the best in football. If the 49ers expect to stay competitive this season it’ll be the work that Staley and company put in that will make it happen.
The long term benefit of this season will be next year when Jimmy Garoppolo and Jerick McKinnon return from their injuries. Being able to install those players into a successful running game will pay immediate dividends. Receivers will be more open, Garoppolo will have more time in the pocket, and McKinnon will have five experienced blockers in front of him that have built the chemistry needed to be a successful offensive line.
It’s always hard to preach patience, especially this season when we all had such high hopes for the team. But take solace in the fact that every missed block and every blown assignment this season, equates to yards next season. Without agile linemen like Harris Barton, Guy McIntyre, and Jesse Sapolu, the 49ers don’t bring home multiple Lombardi trophies in the 1980s. This new offensive line is a callback to those players and hopefully, somewhere, Bobb McKittrick is watching their footwork and smiling.
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