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49ers Offensive Line: Keys to Victory

The offensive line can win or lose for the 49ers

Denver Broncos v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Everyone’s riding high in San Francisco. The 49ers are coming off back to back wins versus two more talented units. At least, that’s the story on paper. Denver’s defense, while ranked high, is really just Von Miller and a cast of role players. The Denver Broncos defense hasn’t been the same since the loss of Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward the last two seasons. The Seattle Seahawks defense is several seasons removed from the Legion of Boom we all loved to hate. The Chicago Bears defense we face today will be formidable and may be the best unit the 49ers have played all season.

Why? Two words: Khalil Mack. No need to go into details, you know the name, you know the skills, you know the storyline. The names you should also know are Leonard Floyd, Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman. And then there is one more familiar face you should know very well, Aaron Lynch. The Bears defense ranks in the top-five in several statistical categories and they are number one in turnover differential. Khalil Mack is tied for fourth in total sacks with 12.5 on the year.

The offensive line faces a big challenge today. In theory, they’ve been building up to this the last two weeks. They’ve faced defensive minded teams that don’t blitz often and rely on their front four to bring pressure through simple one on one domination and line stunts. Each defense has a big name pass rusher on the edge. The Broncos have Von Miller and the Seahawks have Frank Clark. Here’s how the 49ers offensive line can win, or lose the game versus Chicago.

Keys to winning

Scheme and deception. Facing a stout line ready for power football takes skill. Trying to run right at the Bears won’t be a viable option if looking for success. For example, the running play below is a version of a “wham concept.” The interior line blocks down to the left side, leaving Frank Clark unchecked. It’s important to note that Clark and Mack have similar body types and skill sets. Obviously, Mack is on another planet, but the comparison can be drawn. The “kick out” block comes from the opposite side of the formation to catch the defender big eyed and unaware of the crack back. It works here.

Another winning strategy is running counter and misdirection. The play below is basically an old school counter trey, but instead of two pulling guards coming around, there’s one pulling guard and a full back coming around as the remaining lineman block down. The jab step by the running back moves some players out of position. What’s interesting here is that the Seahawk linebackers actually read the counter action, but the hesitation of watching the motion and not moving is enough to allow Laken Tomlinson and Kyle Juszczyk to get in position to block them.

Another key to victory is picking up stunts. The Seahawks ran a lot of these, and so will the Bears. Great job here by Mike Person and Weston Richburg handing off and giving Nick Mullens an extra second to complete the pass.

The final key to victory is winning one on one battles. At the end of the day, the 49ers at times are going to have to be effective at their “cat concepts,” meaning you block that cat, and I’ll block this cat. Once we start having to bring help and sliding protections, Vic Fangio will audible off those adjustments for further punishment. If the 49ers show they can handle Mack and Co., it’ll boost everyone’s confidence and help the team succeed. Mike McGlinchey does a great job here attacking Clark. The play action makes him hesitate some, but McGlinchey locks him down overall.

Keys to Defeat

Missed assignments. If free runners are allowed to hit Mullens or Matt Breida it’s not going to end well. The 49ers have to be more consistent in blocking assignments and specifically picking up stunts on the left side of the line between Joe Staley, Tomlinson, and Richburg. In our first clip, this defender is left totally unblocked even though he lines up directly in front of tight end Garrett Celek. George Kittle also runs right by him. The defender simply runs into the backfield and tackles Breida for no gain.

The next few clips are poor examples of stunt hand offs. For whatever reason, Tomlinson appears to struggle the most. I’m not sure how the 49ers coach specific techniques for hand-offs, but Tomlinson, once engaged, follows his man all over the field with people looping around him. Instead, he should have more awareness to realize the defender is running him out of his blocking zone and he should hand him off and start looking for work elsewhere.

In the clip below, Tomlinson follows his interior blocker way out west as Clark loops inside and becomes unblocked. After 2 to 3 shuffles outside, Tomlinson should be more aware of the stunt. There’s no reason an interior defender would be rushing the QB with that wide of a move. Mullens gets crushed.

In the next missed stunt, it’s more of the same. This time, Tomlinson latches onto his man and tracks him all the way near the opposite guard. Again, the defender loops under him and Richburg isn’t able to get in position to block the defender which leads to Mullens getting brought down.

Interior blocking will also be a key. Pressure cannot be allowed up the gut. While Mack getting around the edge several times is expected, limiting the inside pressure allows Mullens to escape out of the pocket for check downs and completions. If the guards and center are beat, there’s nowhere for Mullens to run and he’ll get sacked. The next few clips are examples of Richburg and Tomlinson getting beat in one on one football similar to what I described. If it’s on tape, Fangio has seen this too.

I’m not sure why Tomlinson sets up so far outside leaving a gap for him to be beat inside with a simple swim and go.

Richburg also needs a solid game. He will be up against two solid defenders that require good technique and form to keep in check. On this play he’s beat off the ball with a rip under move. Mullens tries sliding to the left, but Richburg is unable to keep his defender off of Mullens’ back.

I think defensively, the 49ers can compete with the Bears thanks to Chicago’s lack of a big play wide receiver. Trey Burton is a good tight end but doesn’t bring anything to the ground game. The Bears best offensive attack comes from running the ball and screen passes—something the 49ers defense has become quite adept at the last few weeks. The game will be won by the offense. The offensive unit must limit turnovers and score points. Don’t expect to overcome points on defense while giving up points on offense. Special teams will also be important. Tarik Cohen is one of the most electric returners in the game and everyone on the return teams will need to be locked in. I’m also interested to see how the rookie McGlinchey fairs versus Big Mack dog. Go Niners!