Image Credit: NBC Sports
I Can Smell the Chemicals: The 49ers’ Offensive Line is Forming a Covalent Bond
There is no group within any sport whose success is as dependent on effective communication as the offensive line in football. Physical skill and effort can make a great runner or receiver, but when five or six of us are involved, no amount of talent can replace the ability to understand one another.
Bill Walsh. 1985 San Francisco 49ers Playbook.
Let’s not bury the lede today.
The San Francisco 49ers’ offensive line is often underrated and unfairly made the scapegoat for the offense’s woes.
I’m guilty of ranting and pointing the finger at the line after a bad loss, along with shouting for general manager John Lynch to find two capable offensive guards.
But, the 2018 statistics tell a slightly different story.
During the first five weeks of the 2018 season, the offensive line allowed 12 sacks, or 2.4 sacks per game. Further, the five front men allowed an average of 15.2 pressures, 2.6 hits, and 10.2 hurries per game.
Keep in mind that former 49er Garry Gilliam played in two of the first five games, at one point allowing five pressures, two hits and three hurries during a Week 4 contest against the Los Angeles Chargers.
As the season wore on, and the quarterback carousel kept spinning, the offensive line improved.
The unit allowed 8 sacks over the last five weeks of the season, or an average of 1.6 per game. The average number of pressures per game increased to 15.4 per game, and the average number of hits also ballooned to five per game.
However, the 49ers’ offensive linemen cut down the average number of hurries per game to 8.8.
There are a multitude of reasons Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan are not high on bringing on high-quality veteran talent to upgrade the offensive line. Neither man wishes to divulge these secrets, but after two seasons, it’s clear these men would instead squeeze as much talent out of an average player and spend money on skill positions.
The 49ers’ executives and coaching are building a roster with the idea that five men who know each other’s tendencies, strengths, weaknesses and who can communicate without saying a word are better than five overpaid beasts who are grossly unfamiliar with one another.
That meat-hook reality has been tough to take for an offensive line junkie.
But I’m learning to cope; hopefully, I’ll finally embrace the strategy this fall.
Left guard Laken Tomlinson is an excellent example of Shanahan and Lynch paying a guard on the cheap and getting as much as possible from him.
Tomlinson’s been with the 49ers for two seasons and played 2,070 snaps. He missed the opening game in 2017 and suffered an MCL injury during the Week 17 game against the Los Angeles Rams last season. But overall, he’s remained one of the few healthy players on the 49ers’ roster.
Fortunately, there were no complications from the injury, and Tomlinson played left guard with the ones during OTAs.
Tomlinson improved his pass blocking last season, allowing three fewer hits, five fewer hurries and eight fewer pressures than in 2017. However, he continues to struggle with run blocking.
He’s found a way to work in Kyle Shanahan’s offense, and his communication with left tackle Joe Staley must be outstanding. I imagine these two men can make a “Swap” or a “Fold” call without even speaking it aloud. Sometimes, these traits are enough to make a starting line-up in the NFL.
A healthy Weston Richburg, the team’s big free agent signing in 2018, could be the lynchpin of the line’s chemistry. Richburg failed to play anywhere near his potential due to a Week 4 knee injury. In January 2019, the 49ers announced Richburg was having surgery to repair the knee and damage done to his quadriceps.
The injury clearly limited his overall mobility, as he allowed four sacks, 23 hurries and 33 pressures, which were the worst numbers of Richburg’s career. Further, his overall grade from Pro Football Focus was 20.8 points lower than his 2017 season.
Part of playing center is identifying the front, making a “Cob,” “Choke,” or “Off” call, and then moving his guards inside or outside to help depending on the blitz. I have nothing to base it from, but I believe Richburg will have a strong comeback this fall and play his best season of football.
The 49ers enter the 2019 season with five offensive linemen who played the bulk of the 2018 season together, building a bond and learning how to communicate in loud, raucous stadiums.
There’s no point in the coaching staff creating artificial position battles; last year’s first-team earned the right to come back and start this fall.
You can follow Bret on Twitter here!
Stay tuned to 49ersHub for more great 49ers analysis and coverage!