Staying Vertical: How the 49ers Offensive Line can Neutralize a Stout Eagles Defensive Line


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The chatter among San Francisco 49ers’ fans throughout the long NFL offseason was the need to build the wide receiving corps.

General manager John Lynch needed to make a move for This Guy because he’d be great in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s system.

No, the 49ers’ offensive line was fine!

Forget that quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo suffered the most hits, hurries, and pressures from defenders running through left guard Laken Tomlinson and right guard Mike Person. Combined, Tomlinson and Person allowed 10 hits, 50 hurries, and 64 pressures.

But Mike Person retired! Veteran offensive lineman Daniel Brunskill will work well at guard. Besides, Shanahan’s system doesn’t value guards!

Nobody’s questioning what Brunskill was able to do last season, stepping in at nearly every offensive line position and playing solid football.

We’re now living in this moment in this foul year, not last fall. Today, Brunskill is a bottom tier guard, and Tomlinson’s already allowed two sacks and nine pressures. He’s on pace to allow 10 sacks, 21 hits, and 48 pressures this season.

One Play Sums Up the Struggle

Week 2: 2nd Quarter – 2nd and 13 at the NYJ 46 (14:15)

The play below happened after Tomlinson missed his block that resulted in Garoppolo’s ankle injury.

The Jets aligned with a four-man defensive front, with both defensive tackles shaded outside the guards.

At the snap, both tackles looped to the A-gaps, confusing Brunskill and resulting in Garoppolo getting smashed after the throw.

The Jets did not deliver a confusing or wild stunt. A looping tackle is a block Brunskill needs to make, especially when the play used Scat protection. He had no help from the back or the center.

On Sunday night, the 49ers face a winless Eagles’ defense with zero interceptions and allowing 47 first downs to the opposition.

However, the same Eagles have notched 12 quarterback sacks, third-best in the NFL, and have defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, who’s rated as the 7th best defensive tackle in pro football according to Pro Football Focus.

Once again, the 49ers interior offensive line will have its hands full, keeping Garoppolo standing and grass-stain free.

No, the 49ers’ Can’t Double Team the Opposition.

Now and then, I see a comment that if Shanahan could draw up some double team blocks, it could help out his offensive lineman.

The 49ers play professional football. Starting linemen in the NFL need to block a defensive lineman one-one-one for an afternoon without continually asking for help.

More importantly, the 49ers’ drop back passing game uses Jet and Scat protection, which do not allow for constant interior double team blocks.

Jet is slide protection that sends four offensive linemen away from the call, with the tackle and back protecting the opposite edge. Scat is nearly identical but allows the running back a free release into the play.

However, Shanahan’s system does include double team blocks for the offensive line.

Shanahan has a pass-blocking term called “Base,” instructing the center and onside guard to double team the nose guard on the declared linebacker side. The center and onside guard and tackle must track the linebacker and be ready to come off a block to halt his blitz, if necessary.

The call works best with a 24 protection, which has both backs splitting to block the Sam and Will linebackers.

“Lemon” is another protection call that tells the offensive line to squeeze down to protect the A-gaps against a blitzing linebacker and strong safety. The 49ers will use this call if the play uses “Scat” protection that gives the back a free release.

The 49ers’ offense cannot rely on subtle line audibles all game, especially when Shanahan doesn’t often call 24 protection.

At some point, the Eagles will play a vanilla front, rushing only three or four linemen, and there’s no need for a double team.

The math is simple: Five offensive linemen should handle a three or four-man rush. There are no elaborate schemes to draw up when the offense has more men blocking than the defense has rushed.

Set up the Run, Then Use Movement Plays

The 49ers have the 10th best rush offense in the NFL and are averaging 4.5 yards per attempt. With running back Raheem Mostert expected back this week, it makes sense for Shanahan’s game plan to lean heavily on the run to set up his lethal play-action plays.

Week 2: 1st Quarter - 1st and 10 at the SF 20 (12:24)

Two plays before Garoppolo’s injury, Shanahan called a play-action that gained only four yards.

Typically, a four-yard play is not worth a diagram or discussion, but the play-action will get Garoppolo as far away from the interior offensive line as possible.

Further, F-Slide is essentially a high school varsity flood play. Notice the receivers at different levels: short, intermediate, and deep. If the Eagles take the middle and deep routes, then Garoppolo can quickly dump the ball to his short receiver and allow that man to work in an empty field. If the play-action sucks up the secondary and opens up the deep pass, Garoppolo can let it flow.

The play-action is critical to success and a staple for Shanahan. A heavy run game will set up plays like F-Slide for a significant gain throughout the contest.

Why Not Start Tom Compton or Colton McKivitz?

That’s a hard no from me on both men.

If the 49ers play Tom Compton in any game this year, I highly suggest praying heavily to whatever deity you choose. The only lineman worse than Brunskill is Compton.

As for rookie tackle Colton McKivitz, well, he’s never taken a snap at guard in his career. He’s a tackle, and switching a tackle to the interior is not ideal. Trying McKivitz at guard to kick the tires on him is an unwise idea.

Despite being 2-1, the 49ers are in an unfortunate situation with its interior offensive line. Shanahan should be able to open his entire playbook and dominate the Eagles. Instead, he will have to find ways to work around his guards and ask them to do the bare minimum to keep the Eagles away from Garoppolo.

All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless noted.

All images courtesy of NFL.com.



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