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While the San Francisco 49ers offensive line should be as good, if not better than last season, it has been obvious through four games that this is not the case. The 49ers fell to .500 with a 23-3 loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday giving up first place in the NFC West. More often than not, the offensive line, consisting of tackles Jonas Jennings and Joe Staley, guards Larry Allen and Justin Smiley, and center Eric Heitmann, looks confused and unprepared. This not only effects the quarterback, but it effects running back Frank Gore as well, who is on pace to barely break the 1,000 yard rushing barrier for this season, well shy of his 1,695 yards last season. As for his goal to become the single season rushing record holder, that seems about as likely to happen as the 49ers appearing in the Super Bowl this coming January.
The game on Sunday had a number of miscues by the 49ers offensive line. The miscues are the type that you might see among a young and inexperienced offensive line, not a group of seasoned veterans. If you throw out rookie Joe Staley, the rest of the offensive line has an average of almost 8 years of experience among them. In fact, the rookie Staley may have played better on Sunday than any of the other experienced members of the offensive line.
While the 49ers offense struggles, the defense continues to look solid. The problem is that the defense is constantly asked to carry this team. When your offense is as ineffective as it has been for the 49ers through four games, that can be a very wearisome task. Despite the team's hardships, during the first three games, the offense looked to be getting better with each passing week. While the improvement may have been minor, it was an improvement. With this last game, the offense appears to have regressed thanks to the ineffectiveness by the offensive line to play as a cohesive unit. I doubt even Payton Manning or Tom Brady would have been very effective behind this group given the way they have been playing.
Let's take a look at a few of the miscues along the offensive front from Sunday.
On the third offensive snap of the game, 49ers starting quarterback Alex Smith was driven into the ground by Seahawks defensive tackle Rocky Bernard. Smith separated his right shoulder on the play and left the field to be examined by the training staff. On that play, five defensive players, including Bernard, rushed the quarterback. The only player that failed to effectively block their defender was 49ers center Eric Heitmann who thought Bernard would be picked up by Allen. However, when linebacker Lofa Tatupu moved from the outside to the inside, that forced Allen to pick him up. This left Bernard free to fly by Heitmann who also moved to pick up Tatupu. Even running back Maurice Hicks did a passable job blocking Seahawks linebacker, and former 49er Julian Peterson, who would end the game with three sacks of the quarterback. All three of those sacks would come on miscues by the 49ers offensive line. Trent Dilfer came in to replace Smith.
On the third snap of the 49ers' fourth drive, Peterson came unblocked from Dilfer's blind side and drove the veteran quarterback into the ground. Seven Seahawks rushed the quarterback as the 49ers had four receivers, including tight end Delanie Walker, head downfield leaving only six offensive players to block. That left Peterson with a straight shot at Dilfer.
Fast forward to the second quarter. The 49ers' first series of this quarter ended when Justin Smiley failed to recover after Seahawks defensive end Patrick Kerney blew by him. The Seahawks were only rushing four players. The 49ers had six offensive players, including running back Frank Gore, pass blocking for Dilfer. On the play, a miscue by Heitmann left Larry Allen blocking the wrong defensive player, Ellis Wyms, who would eventually drop back into pass coverage after seeing that the broken protection would leave blitzing outside linebacker Leroy Hill to be guarded by Frank Gore. Confused yet? Yeah, so were the 49ers and that resulted in a Kerney sack of Dilfer.
The miscues continued with 8:01 left in the first half. Despite excellent initial pass blocking by the offensive line (three defensive pass rushers against six 49er pass blockers), Dilfer chooses to scramble to his left. The move causes confusion among the offensive line. Larry Allen who sees Dilfer taking off, turns in the wrong direction failing to pick up defensive tackle Craig Terrill, who would eventually force Dilfer to get rid of the ball early before hitting him. Had Allen turned in the direction of the scramble, he likely would have picked up Terrill and given Dilfer a little more time to find an open receiver down the field.
Two plays later, seven Seahawks blitzed. However, this time, the 49ers had seven players in to block. There was some major confusion on the left side of the line with Jonas Jennings and Delanie Walker. Walker thought he was supposed to block the inside blitzing defender. Unfortunately, so did Jennings. When Walker moved inside instead of staying behind to help protect Dilfer's blind spot, Julian Peterson was left free to sack the quarterback and force the fumble. Walker was probably correct in assuming he should have been the one to block inside and stop defensive back Deon Grant which would have left the more athletic Peterson for Jennings. It was not necessary to have both Walker and Jennings block a defensive back.
By this point in the game, it was obvious that the constant pressure on Dilfer created a level of distrust between him and this offensive line. On the first play of the final drive of the first half, the Seahawks only had a three-man rush. The 49ers had five players blocking for Dilfer. Allen and Heitmann had defensive tackle Craig Terrill well blocked leaving Smiley free to move to his right to assist Joe Staley who was blocking Patrick Kerney. Jennings had defensive end Darryl Tapp well blocked on the left side. However, when that matchup got a little too close for comfort for Dilfer, he immediately moved behind Jennings to the left side of the line. Unfortunately, this move was not seen by Jennings who had to shift his weight to the outside not knowing that his quarterback was now behind him. Tapp then got the better of the matchup and Dilfer ran straight into his waiting arms.
With 29 seconds left in the half, a blunder by Larry Allen allowed Julian Peterson to add on another sack to his stats and force another fumble by Dilfer. Luckily, Dilfer was the one to fall on the loose ball. On this play, Seattle had a four man rush. Allen was blocking Peterson and there was no way Peterson should have gotten by him. However, when Allen saw another Seahawk defender run by (not trusting that Jennings would eventually pick him up), he abandoned Peterson and the former 49er had another easy shot at the quarterback.
Dilfer was not sacked in the second half of the game. However, that does not mean that the play of the offensive line had improved as the 49ers were only able to score a field goal thanks to the leg of Joe Nedney, the team's reliable kicker. The rest of the drives in the second half resulted in two interceptions, four punts and a turnover on downs. In fact, punter Andy Lee had his work cut out for him as he was asked to punt the ball ten total times.
Quarterback Alex Smith has been taking a beating not only by defensive lineman and linebackers, but by a good amount of the Niner Faithful. Many have felt that Smith was to blame for the team's ineffectiveness on offense and were begging for a chance to see what Dilfer could do. Fans got their wish on Sunday and after just a few drives with Dilfer at the helm, those that doubted Smith were hoping for his quick return. Dilfer's passes not only looked off, but he would often throw to a receiver who was well covered by multiple defensive players. His misreads led to two interceptions and he only completed 36% of his 33 passes for 128 yards.
Dilfer is not the answer. And no, neither is Shaun Hill. Alex Smith is the team's best chance to win. Smith will have his arm looked at on Monday to determine the severity of the injury, but when asked about the likelihood that Smith would play against the Ravens next weekend, head coach Mike Nolan simply said, "Probably not."
Nolan and his coaching staff have their work cut out for them this week as they attempt to correct all of the offensive problems. The Seahawks defense ranked 28th in the league prior to Sunday. The Ravens ranked 9th.
As for Gore's hopes to turn things around, while he has not yet rushed for over 100 yards in any of his first four games, the Ravens have not allowed a 100-yard rusher this season.