What Position Group Upgrade Would Benefit The 49ers Most?
Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
If you’ve followed me through the slings and arrows of an off-season San Francisco 49ers debate, you’ll know that I am always in favor of upgrading the offensive line.
I see no reason that each draft and free agency period should not include a quality guard, tackle, or center to compete for a back-up or starting role.
The cheese most certainly stands alone.
This year, it appears the tides have finally shifted in the direction of drafting or signing a new guard, and I am pleased to see the harbor fill with like-minded friends.
The 49ers need to consider upgrading at back-up tackle and all three interior positions. Still, the chief concern for general manager John Lynch needs to be an overhaul at both guard positions.
I’ve had a lukewarm, often frustrated relationship with 49ers’ left guard Laken Tomlinson since he signed with the team in late August 2017. Tomlinson is an average guard who has found a way to flourish in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense.
A zone system does not require an offensive lineman to maul the defender in front of him completely. Instead, a reliable zone blocker heads to an area or the second level to pick off pesky linebackers.
Tomlinson’s upside is his ability to stay healthy and working in a system that caters to his skillset. He isn’t a dominating force on the offensive line, nor is he the NFL’s best guard, but he is incredibly consistent and reliable. I applaud Tomlinson for showing up each day and taking nearly every snap – approximately 3,309 during his time in Santa Clara.
Further, the 49ers know what they will get out of Tomlinson each season: he allows 3.6 sacks, 30.2 pressures and 22.2 hurries and average an overall 65.5 grade.
There is no amount of magic, sacred geometry, or coaching that will boost Tomlinson’s statistics, and that’s the bedrock of my frustration with him.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan cannot settle for average anymore if he wants to bring a balance to his offense and help quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo improve.
Garoppolo gets an unfair heap of criticism piled onto his shoulders. Indeed, he’s not perfect. But he’s also not getting help from either guard.
Last season, Garoppolo suffered the most hits, hurries, and pressures from defenders running through Tomlinson and Person. Combined, Tomlinson and right guard Mike Person allowed ten hits, 50 hurries, and 64 pressures.
Tomlinson’s issue isn’t his durability – it’s his fundamental breakdown throughout the game.
Super Bowl: 4th Quarter - 2nd and 5 at the SF 25 (5:27)
Far into the future, 49er fans will continue to debate Shanahan’s series of calls to close out Super Bowl LIV. At this moment in the game, Shanahan made the right call to throw, and Garoppolo made the right read.
The play above was a run-pass option that instructed the 49ers’ pass protection to move left. Tomlinson was keeping Chiefs’ defensive lineman Chris Jones away from Garoppolo until Tomlinson’s poor hand placement shoved Jones’ arm into the air.
All Jones had to do was move it a little higher to bat Garoppolo’s pass into the turf.
Week 14: 2nd Quarter – 1st and Goal at the NO 10 (:45)
Before anyone rants and points a finger: Yes, the 49ers scored a touchdown on this play, and no, that’s not a bad thing.
My issues were the two fundamental errors Tomlinson made on the play. He was a foot or so back from the line of scrimmage, which Saints’ defensive tackle Shy Tuttle noted before the snap.
First, when he lined up, he made it abundantly clear he was going to pull.
Second, look at his position as running back Raheem Mostert turned upfield toward the end zone.
Pulling guards need to flatten defenders, not merely push and shove a defender away from the designated hole. Tomlinson’s shoulders should have been perpendicular to the line of scrimmage, not facing toward the end zone.
Tomlinson’s pull block sums up his hot and cold run blocking skill set. Sometimes, he looks great while other times, he’s in a lousy position, using the wrong technique.
Mike Person is an entirely different story. He had a solid 2018 season, allowing one sack and seven hurries. It made sense for the 49ers to offer a three-year extension worth $9 million to Person in March 2019.
But that investment did not pay off for the 49ers. Person had his worst season as a professional allowing 35 pressures, 29 hurries, and five sacks over 1,114 snaps. At one point, he earned an 11.5 pass-blocking grade from Pro Football Focus for his performance against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 6.
In fairness to Person, that grade was artificially low. Indeed, Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald chewed through Person like the Grim Reaper swinging a 450-horsepower mechanized scythe. Still, Person also was utterly embarrassed by nose tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day at the start of the second quarter.
Week 6 - 2nd Quarter: 2nd and 10 at the SF 49 (14:52)
Shanahan called a modified version of Scissors using P15 Split protection. Split protection occurs when the backs head in opposite directions: in this instance, the fullback went to the right, and the halfback went left. The offensive line is coached to block aggressively.
Los Angeles was in a base 3-4 under front, with Joseph-Day shaded to the closed side of the formation.
The protection called for center Weston Richburg and Person to double team Joseph-Day, with Richburg keeping an eye on the Plug linebacker.
At the snap, Joseph-Day engaged the double team block on his second step and exploded to spin around Person on his third step.
Person had too much weight on his inside leg, leaving him no chance to bounce right and block the open B-gap. He nearly gave up a sack, but Garoppolo found tight end George Kittle on a Scissors route.
Forty-Niner fans and professional football experts can go round after round about the need for skill positions, specifically upgrades to the receiver corps and a dominating cornerback. Both are legitimate needs for the 2020 season.
But the heartbeat of an offense begins with the five men at the line of scrimmage. Boil down nearly any broken offensive play, and I’d guarantee the cause of the failure started up front – a missed block, poor footwork, weak pull, or the guard getting overpowered again and again. It gets easy to blame the quarterback for all failures, but the film often provides the official story.
General manager John Lynch and Shanahan have tried to use below-average interior linemen and have found success –the 49ers’ rushing statistics from 2019 alone prove the strategy worked.
Repairs to the passing game start by improving the guard positions, not by drafting or signing a high-priced wide receiver. It is beyond time Shanahan cuts the number of hurries and pressures Garoppolo faces. More time in a clean pocket is a tide that raises all boats and buys time for Garoppolo to find his intermediate and deep receivers.
All images courtesy of NFL.com.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless noted.
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