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49ers’ offensive line continues to be weak link

The unit had a brutal showing in the Week 4 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Coming into the 2020 NFL season, some question marks were surrounding the San Francisco 49ers’ offensive line. Those concerns were validated in an ugly 25-20 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Niners’ protection was in one word: pathetic. Philadelphia’s defensive front is among the best in the league, and San Francisco had no answer. Quarterback Nick Mullens — who was awful throughout the game — was under siege from the opening drive. Perennial All-Pro Trent Williams had one of his career’s worst outings, while right tackle Mike McGlinchey was routinely beaten by his man, especially on the final drive with the game on the line.

Head coach Kyle Shanahan knew it would be difficult to slow down Philly’s defensive line all week, a unit that is tied for third in the NFL in sacks per game.

The Eagles finished the game with 5 sacks, 5 tackles for a loss and 15 QB hits. Any time the opposing defense is getting that much pressure, it’s tough to win in the NFL.

“That’s a good front, they did that to the team they played last week,” he said. “Some is on the play calling, some is on Nick, we have to be better all around.”

Mullens never found his rhythm. He missed fullback Kyle Juszczyk for a big gain early on and then seemed fazed by the Eagles pressure until he was benched in the fourth quarter.

“They got a pretty good pass rush, but I thought our guys up front did a really good,” Mullens said after the game. “I really wasn’t too worried about the pressure. I felt pretty calm back, felt relaxed, felt focused. We were aware of that coming, but I felt our O-line did a pretty good job.”

I don’t know what game Mullens was watching, but you would expect him to stick up for his teammates. The truth is that the offensive line was atrocious. Coming into the game, Football Outsiders had the 49ers ranked 31st in the NFL in adjusted line yards. This isn’t a one-off; it’s been an issue all season.

San Francisco’s running backs averaged 3.5 yards per carry in the loss. Obviously, the rushing game is missing Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman, but the line’s play is a big reason why the running attack has failed to find its form from 2019.

Tight end George Kittle returned to the lineup and balled out. He had 15 receptions for 183 yards but knows how important it is for San Francisco to be able to run the ball. He’s confident the Niners will be better moving forward.

“We rely heavily on our tight ends and our tackles, I think overall in the run game, we just weren’t playing at our level I expect us to play,” Kittle said. “I know Trent and Mike both expect to play at a very high level in the run game; we just have to be better. I think we are the best run team in the world. We proved that last year.”

McGlinchey’s performance was especially troubling. According to Pro Football Focus, he came into the matchup against Philadelphia with a 46.8 pass-blocking grade, and his struggles continued into Week 4. He was bull-rushed twice on the final drive, which resulted in second-string QB C.J. Beathard throwing incompletions.

Shanahan will have to come up with creative ways to limit the liability of the offensive line. Right guard Daniel Brunskill hasn’t played up to the standards that he did last season, with PFF grading him 50th out of all NFL players who play his position. Center Ben Garland has filled in admirably for the injured Weston Richburg, but the inconsistency is killing the 49ers.

San Francisco is facing major injuries to every position group except for the offensive line. The unit has been intact through four games and was supposed to be a stabilizing force rather than a glaring weakness.

The hope is that when quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo returns, things will start to look a whole lot better. As The Athletic’s David Lombardi points out, Jimmy G hid some of of the offensive line’s deficiencies in 2019:

It has been a frustrating start to the 2020 season, but the Niners still have time to turn it around. As the saying goes, football games are “won in the trenches,” and if San Francisco doesn’t correct its O-line issues, it won’t be doing a whole lot of winning this year.