• Bret Rumbeck

Can the Band Aided OL Keep the 49ers Afloat Until Injuries Heal?

Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann

I am Stuck on Band Aid, 'Cause Band Aid's Stuck on Me.

One hundred years of glorious professional football history has given us millions of offensive line combinations. Some were bonded together like adamantium on a skeleton, operating with the precision and discipline of an emotionless Terminator.

Others, in a general manager’s last gasp, have been slapped together with chicken wire and Bubble Yum, often with mixed results of moderate success and absolute failure.

The 2019 San Francisco 49ers find themselves somewhere in between a mutant experiment and a last-minute science fair project. Injuries to tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey forced the team to start rookie Justin Skule in Week 3 and journeyman tackle Daniel Brunskill last week against the Los Angeles Rams.

Skule, a sixth-round pick from Vanderbilt, had more NFL experience than Brunskill, who entered last Sunday’s game with eight NFL snaps on his resume.

Combined, Skule and Brunskill have only allowed one sack, two hits, four hurries, and seven pressures. Brunskill only allowed one hurry and one pressure against a stout Rams defensive line.

I won’t hide behind previous takes that neither Skule or Brunskill belong on an NFL roster. Three games have not sold me on Skule as Staley’s heir apparent. Further, one good outing from a tackle whose experience was eight starts in the Alliance of American Football is not enough.

The 49ers, under general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan, like to skimp on the offensive line and pray for the best. Sunday, their collective cry to the cosmos was granted. Next Sunday, the deities of the 28 known galaxies may not be as benevolent.

There are no cut and dry reasons why Skule and Brunskill had success on Sunday, but we can use this time to clear up a few myths floating around Twitter.

Myth: Skule and Brunskill Get Tight End/Running Back Help

Fact: Shanahan’s system uses a variety of drop back protections, with most plays using 2/3 Jet or 2/3 Scat. As noted in previous work, Jet is slide protection that sends four offensive linemen in one direction, with the tackle and back protecting the other edge.

Below is an excellent look at Jet protection. There is no “double team” or “chip” in Jet protection. The tackle is in a one-on-one situation and must control the edge. The back is making a double read, inside-out, starting over the center. He may, at times, need to block the backside A-gap or a man rushing weak.

Scat is true five-man protection, with the back and the Y-receiver releasing immediately into the play. Again, you’ll see the line slide four men in one direction, with the tackle protecting an edge.

Both Skule and Brunskill had no problem with either protection against the Rams. I am sure that any NFL team would be pleased to have its tackles only allow a handful of hits or hurries on a Sunday afternoon.

Skule and Brunskill holding off the Rams do not mean they’ll have an easy time with Washington’s defensive line. Never look past a one-win team, as Washington could show up on Sunday, very angry and ready to prove something to themselves.

Myth: Shanahan Called Quick Passes to Limit How Long the Line Held its Blocks

Fact: Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo averaged 8.7 yards per attempted pass, with an average gain per pass play of 6.6 yards.

I have not yet watched the full film from Sunday, but my notes tell me that Garoppolo was doing more than three-step drop passes for 40 minutes.

Tight end George Kittle’s 45-yard gain early in the second quarter came from a play-action pass and a deep drop from Garoppolo. While both tackles held up on the play, Rams’ nose tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day skunked guard Mike Person with a spin move.

Myth: Both Tackles Graded Well in Run Blocking, So the Ground Attack Was Solid.

Fact: Indeed, both tackles graded well against the Rams, with Skule earning a 66.2 run block grade and Brunskill topping all 49er linemen with a 68.6 grade.

More concerning was the truly putrid run blocking from Person and left guard Laken Tomlinson. Tomlinson’s run blocking has always been his Achilles heel. Pro Football Focus gave Person a 48.1 grade and Tomlinson an embarrassing 36.1 run-blocking grade for the day.

2nd Quarter: 1st and 10 at the SF 11 (8:44)

Shanahan called a bread-and-butter zone run to start the drive. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald embarrassed Person with a quick arm-over move, while outside linebacker Samson Ebukam went right behind Donald through an open A-gap. Donald got credit for the tackle.

It’s possible Person and Brunskill had a miscommunication on the play, but it’s a bad look from a veteran guard. Additionally, I loathe when an offensive lineman makes a half-hearted block on a defender to make it look like he tried.

Often, when talking about the offensive line, I like to bring up a quote from the late Bill Walsh.

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

It seems the 49ers have become better communicators on both sides of the ball this year, which has been an overlooked part of the team’s success. Garoppolo looks to have a full grasp and feel of Shanahan’s theory, while the offensive line has been making up for apparent talent gaps with better talking.

Of course, we are not privy to what happens in the line’s film room or meetings during the week. And maybe that’s why the Band-Aids feel more like liquid glue to close the suture.

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