The 49ers have been lauded for the play of their mauling offensive line during the Jim Harbaugh era. Consistently regarded as one of, if not, the best units in all of football, the offensive line has been a subject of scrutiny during the preseason. Right guard Alex Boone remains a holdout as he and the team appear at a standstill in contract discussions. When he returns is anyone's guess. Even if he does return at some point soon, what kind of player will the 49ers be getting? He's missed all offseason activity so it's quite possible he could be a bit out of shape and most definitely rusty. Joe Looney has stepped into the starting lineup in his place and has had his fair share of ups and downs.
Speaking of rust, right tackle Anthony Davis has yet to engage in offseason action (with the exception of individual drills) due to shoulder surgery. As someone who had question marks surrounding conditioning coming into the league (which, to his credit, he effectively dispelled as a pro), it's still possible he may not be in top form heading into September. Jonathan Martin—the offseason acquisition shipped over from a much-maligned, highly publicized tenure in Miami—has been doing most of the work at right tackle in Davis' absence. Like Looney, Martin has had struggles. At times, he looked pretty good against San Diego but he's also been pushed backwards and flat out bullied at other times during the preseason.
At least the left side of the line is locked down and imposing with stalwarts Joe Staley and Mike Iupati, right?
Iupati was thoroughly abused when the first team was on the field last Sunday against the Chargers. The optimist likes to think it was just an aberration and, in all likelihood, it was. The objectivist hopes it's just a fluke as well, but recognizes the real possibility that he may not be back to full speed after sustaining a fractured ankle in the Championship loss to Seattle.
Then there's the center position, which had been manned by consistent veteran, Jonathan Goodwin, since 2011. The 49ers elected not to resign Goodwin and felt it was time to hand the reins over to 4th-year Appalachian State product, Daniel Kilgore. Few would argue with the choice the Niners made here; I certainly wouldn't. Goodwin is up in years, while Kilgore has been slowly groomed to usurp him. Thus far, Harbaugh has commended Kilgore and the center appears up to the task, but it's still yet another transition for the offensive line to endure, a position group known to live and die by cohesion.
San Francisco's offense often sputtered and came up short in the redzone behind a dominant line last year. What would it do behind a mediocre or, worse yet, subpar one?
Frank Gore's vision and anticipation are impeccable, and he has few fans bigger than myself. However, we all know that his speed is comparable to mine, especially at this stage of his career. If the offensive line can't provide windows to spring Gore to the second level, the 49ers running game-the hallmark of the offense for the past 4 years-will take a tremendous step backwards. Kendall Hunter's quick speed may have helped mitigate a possible scenario such as that but he's done for the year with a torn ACL.
The passing attack features a much better crop of receivers than at any other point in the Harbaugh era, thanks to a healthy Michael Crabtree, the additions of Brandon Lloyd and Stevie Johnson, and burgeoning young talent in Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington. And yet, it won't matter who is down field if the line can't give Kaepernick time and protection. Preseason or not, Sunday's performance was an embarrassment and conjured up nightmares of Chilo Rachal. It seemed like every time Kaepernick dropped back, he was running for his life or being blindsided with brutal hits. Gore's first run—a sweep to the left side—saw him get dropped for a loss, as defenders busted through to the backfield with ease.
For the sake of an effective passing game and, even more importantly, in making sure Kaepernick stays healthy, OL coach Mike Solari has to get this group corrected and whipped into shape. Quickly.
It's not all doom and gloom, of course. There's plenty of reason for hope just as there is reason for doubt. After all, this 49ers regime has shown it can adapt on the fly. Look no further than 2011, when a rookie head coach entered during a lockout, turned around the franchise, and revived Alex Smith's career en route to a Championship game. As the old adage goes, football is won in the trenches. We saw that from the 2011 squad and now, that statement stands as an imperative for 2014. The line is the cornerstone of San Francisco's run-heavy offense; it allows them to be who they are and gain positive rushing yards, even when the defense knows it's coming. If there's a considerable or significant drop-off in protection and run blocking, the 49ers offense will be shell of its former self...and that former self isn't all that great. The success of the overall team and its 3rd-ranked rushing attack clouded the fact that the 49ers ranked 24th in overall offense last year, and a paltry 30th in passing.
After a sluggish start, the starting defense showed its mettle against San Diego and, despite a few changes on that side of the ball, there shouldn't be much decline, if any, from last year's unit. If the preseason has shown anything, it's that it all boils down to the o-line. If they can play the way they have been for the past few years, despite all the challenges noted above, the 49ers remain strong Super Bowl competitors. If they can't, there could be a rude awakening waiting in the wings for this team...one that no defense in the world would be able to compensate for.