It’s all about the trenches! No matter what level of football the game is being played at, everything starts with what happens up front. The 49ers entered this season with a bit of uncertainty on that front, with two starting linemen who had never started a game at the NFL level, including a rookie in Spencer Burford, who is just 22 years old.
Burford and their 2021 second-round pick, Aaron Banks, answered the call to action, doing an exceptional job manning the guard positions so far this season. Both players have played a major role in the 49ers' ability to win up front and control the line of scrimmage.
Following injuries to their first and second-string left tackle, the 49ers pivoted to yet another young and inexperienced player on the offensive line, tasking second-year tackle Jaylon Moore with protecting Jimmy Garoppolo’s blindside until Trent Williams and Colton McKivitz return from their respective injuries.
Like Banks and Burford, Moore stepped up when his team needed him and did an admirable job starting at left tackle in the 49ers' 37-15 win over the Carolina Panthers. Moore held his own for the most part against one of the most talented edge rushers in football in Brian Burns, again illustrating just how deep this 49ers roster is across the board.
Check out this rep for Moore going one on one with Burns:
Great pass pro rep for Jaylon Moore against Brian Burns pic.twitter.com/E7e7X5sLpy— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) October 11, 2022
Moore was also fantastic in the run game, helping pave the way for 153 yards on the ground against a stout Panthers defense. Here is one of Moore’s impressive run-blocking reps, putting a solid down block on Panthers defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon.
Nice down block by Jaylon Moore pic.twitter.com/5ZwHvZeSOW— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) October 12, 2022
Jeff Wilson Jr. averaged 7.1 yards per carry on the ground against the Panthers, in large part due to the gaping holes that the offensive line created for Wilson Jr. to navigate through. Here are a couple of still shots from Sunday’s victory to illustrate just how wide these running lanes were.
You could fit a semi truck in that running lane pic.twitter.com/RsDYni7IDh— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) October 12, 2022
I want to take a moment to highlight the latter play pictured above because it was a great example of one of Burford’s greatest strengths, which is his ability to move laterally, which makes him extremely valuable when he is tasked with executing kick-out blocks as a pulling guard.
The play call is “GY counter,” and Burford is going to be tasked with sealing off the play side edge with a kick-out block. Watch how agile Burford is while he pulls to make this block and seal off a path for Wilson Jr. to explode through for a 42-yard gain.
Nice kick out block by Spencer Burford to seal off the play side OLB on “GY Counter”— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) October 12, 2022
This went for a gain of 42 yards pic.twitter.com/zU2o8DbPkA
One thing that frequently irritates me when it comes to the discourse surrounding the offensive line play is how the discussion seemingly only begins if something bad happens.
Rarely if ever, do you see an individual rep by an offensive lineman get highlighted in the postgame discussion that occurs on a regular basis, but if that same lineman were to whiff on a block or get beat for a sack, the complaining and blaming would be constant.
Part of my goal of doing a weekly piece on the trenches is to help normalize and encourage more positive dialogue surrounding what is largely a thankless job on the offensive line, despite it being paramount to the success of a team in any given game.
There was a play in the third quarter that really stood out to me, with the 49ers facing a 3rd and goal from the Panthers' four-yard line. The 49ers go four wide, with Tevin Coleman running a choice route out of the backfield, which meant the offensive line wasn’t getting any extra support in pass protection.
Banks was matched up with longtime veteran Matt Ioannidis, who attempted to beat Banks to the inside with a swim move. As Ioannidis went over the top with the swim move, Banks was able to push off his right foot and drive into the midsection of Ioannidis, driving him out of the pocket entirely to give Garoppolo enough time to find Deebo Samuel in the end zone.
The reason I chose this play specifically was because I hope we can get to a point where the victories by the offensive line in these high-leverage moments are celebrated with the same fervor that a lot of people ridicule their shortcomings with.
It’s still early, and there have been some growing pains, but all things considered, the 49ers have to be thrilled with the return they have gotten from the youth on their offensive line this season.
Next time you see Garoppolo stand tall in the pocket and deliver a strike downfield or Wilson Jr. break off a big run, instead of focusing on where the play ends, take a moment to appreciate where it began. Without the offensive line playing at the high level that it did, the 49ers' offense doesn’t dream of putting 30 points on the board the way they did in Carolina.
I’d like to conclude with a stat that might surprise you. Among quarterbacks with 100 dropbacks, the 49ers are allowing the second-lowest pressure rate in the league at 26.1% on Garoppolo’s 115 dropbacks this season, trailing only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
This group has done an admirable job keeping their quarterback upright, and they deserve praise and recognition for the dirty work they are doing in the trenches week after week.