Home > NFL > Winning with a poor offensive line in 2011, and the San Francisco 49ers

Winning with a poor offensive line in 2011, and the San Francisco 49ers

It is possible (even acceptable) that you missed last year’s diatribe on the Chicago Bears, and winning with a dreadful offensive line.  The fact that the Bears are doing it again this year (and to their credit, their OL has been much better) is hardly a surprise.  But still, it remains rare for a team to be able to produce so many wins with so little ability to protect the passer and open up holes in the run game.  The Bears are just 7-6 this year.  The New York Giants, also struggling on the OL, are also 7-6.

The San Francisco 49ers, however, are 10-3 this year.  Their offensive line is not historically bad like the Bears was last season, nor has it been totally neglected after the Niners took TWO offensive lineman in the first round of the 2010 draft, both are starters with this current group.  But taking a weak offensive line and simply winning as much as you lose, even against a weak schedule is usually a challenge.  The 49ers have a bad offensive line.  And they clinched the NFC West on December 4th.

Typically, units like this would require a large contribution by a veteran quarterback just to mitigate some of the damage to the offense.  The 49ers have a veteran quarterback, but that player is Alex Smith, and so it wouldn’t make a ton of sense for the offense to lean on Smith to hide it’s flaws.  Smith is having a nearly identical season to last year with one major exception: he’s not turning the football over.  And good for him.  The 49ers formula for victory under Jim Harbaugh is clearly working better than anyone could have possibly expected.

The 49ers have put on a clinic on how to use the unique skills of their running backs and tight ends to produce positively on an offense that cannot protect its quarterback, doesn’t have a particularly great receiving corps (balls in critical downs and distances are frequently thrown to Ted Ginn), and has to limit the effect of the quarterback on the game week to week.

That’s a remarkable amount of limitations to overcome, and it’s why hardly anyone was high on the 49ers before the season.  Those limitations have proven limiting.  It’s far less shocking that the offensive line has failed to improve by a meaningful amount over last year than it is that the 49ers have rode pretty much the same players as last year to a 10+ win season.  The 49ers, like the Bears and Steelers before them, have been successful at leveraging what they do have: a great defense, and a particularly strong punting game, into a balanced offensive attack that can throw punches at the opposing defense even while it has to cover its own scars for four quarters.

A lot of the genius in the 49ers attack is based in it’s simplicity: you can accomplish plenty of the NFL just taking the strengths of four players: TEs Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker and RBs Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter, and creating four different sections of the playbook to have everyone involved.  Nothing the 49ers are running is particularly innovative, but the balance in the attack is remarkable.  Remember: if you call a run, you’re relying on a weak offensive line to consistently win at the point of attack.  If you call a pass, you are relying on a limited quarterback and receivers to quickly identify the defense, throw and catch the football to convert a first down.

The key is that even though the 49ers cannot win the game in the box on a down by down basis, and they can’t move anyone off the ball in power situations, and they can’t protect the quarterback in a way that allows him to sit back and read a defense, the 49ers offense can still throw multiple blocking schemes and vertical attacks at a defense.  The efficiency numbers on the 49ers suggest a couple of things: the offense fails more than it succeeds, in fact, it suggests that despite the seasons that the 49ers’ two top runners are having, only three teams are less efficient in the ground game than San Francisco this season.  Their ability to stick with the running game as a foundation of their offense even in the face of overall ineffectiveness is remarkable.

The 49ers have created a culture where despite the strength of their defense and ineffectiveness of their offense, opposing defenses are cheating on the running game, while Gore and Hunter are still breaking plenty of tackles.  Those runners play beyond the scheme.  And their continued efforts will remain critical if the 49ers are to make a long playoff run.  But by making the ground game their staple AND getting opponents to respect it as their staple, the 49ers have proven able to manage Smith despite not being able to set up and pass protect.  That they have been successful this long boggles the mind.  And while it would not be a shock at all if the 49ers can’t keep this going into the playoffs, and Smith looks really bad against a good defense, it’s just as possible that teams won’t figure out just how honest they must remain against the 49ers.

A year ago, there was no balance in their 49ers offense.  Smith was one of the players they had to manage, yet on third downs, they had no choice but to cut it lose with him and swallow their lumps.  It’s different this year.  And it’s not like they are winning because the offensive line has been better.  San Francisco’s OL is still a work-in-progress, to put it nicely.  But they are taking risks at the right times, and the decline of the OL’s ability to move people off the ball this year — in spite of the Jim Harbaugh physical “mentality” — hasn’t affected what they set out to do in Week 1.  That is why halfway through December, the 49ers are in the playoffs already.

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