The big news late last night was that 49ers offensive tackle Joe Staley was reportedly given full clearance for his concussion and is expected to start tonight against the Steelers. The 49ers pass protection was blown up pretty badly by the Arizona Cardinals and the Steelers are expected to bring some significant zone blitzing in a similar mold.
Although Alex Boone did provide a solid effort against the Arizona Cardinals, he also received some help that might have cost the team elsewhere on the line. A good example of this is at the 7:28 mark of the first quarter. Alex Boone picked up the defensive end and Mike Iupati proceeded to join Boone on the guy, leaving a huge lane open for an inside linebacker to blow through untouched.
There are several examples of issues like this during the game. Boone was making the most significant appearance of his young career and one has to wonder how that impacted the chemistry we see in the offensive line. It is worth noting that in the 49ers ten wins they have given up 19 sacks and in their three losses they have given up 20 sacks. It is safe to say offensive line play is the biggest factor in this game.
Our own Danny Tuccitto (formerly known as Florida Danny, for those who were not aware) has been working for Football Outsiders this season, and has had a chance to write some of their content in connection with ESPN.com. He put together a preview piece for tonight's game over at ESPN, although unfortunately it is Insider-protected.
The general gist of the article though is as mentioned before the jump, the 49ers have a big issue with zone blitzes. The Baltimore Ravens and Arizona Cardinals both brought serious heat through a variety of zone blitzing schemes, and the 49ers did not respond well. Alex Smith did get happy feet at times, but the offensive line was missing all sorts of assignments as well. Having rewatched some of these games, the line struggled mightily against the scheme.
Danny makes an excellent point about tonight's game. Although Pittsburgh does consistently bring the offensive pressure of the Packers, their zone blitzing scheme is something that would prepare for the 49ers for a possible playoff game at Lambeau Field.
Like the Ravens and Cardinals, the Packers run a 3-4 defense that zone blitzes as much as any in the NFL. Again examining our game charting database, Green Bay zone blitzes on about 8 percent of pass plays, which is sixth most in the league; that's just below the Ravens, who rank fourth in zone blitz frequency. The Cardinals rank 24th, but their charting stats don't yet incorporate their zone blitz-happy game against San Francisco. And besides, it's even more telling that a team like Arizona, which hadn't zone blitzed much prior to facing the 49ers, decided to break from tendency in that game.
According to Danny, the Steelers rank ninth in zone blitz frequency. Expect to see the Steelers bring zone blitzing schemes quite frequently until the 49ers prove they can adjust to them. Whether that means play-calling changes or just getting assignments better covered, the 49ers have their work cut out for them against a stout Steelers defense. It will be interesting to see how they scheme against the Steelers zone blitz.