Under Pressure, The San Francisco 49ers Struggling With Pass Protection

Oct 9, 2014 at 2:52 PM

The San Francisco 49ers offensive line has been widely regarded as one of the best in the NFL since Jim Harbaugh took over in 2011. That has definitely been true when it comes to run blocking, but pass blocking has been a different story of late. Through the first five weeks of the season ProFootballFocus has the 49ers ranked 27th in pass blocking.

When you break down the numbers it's not pretty. The 49ers offensive line has given up pressure on 53 or 181 pass plays in 2014, or 29%. The only member of the group to not give up a sack so far has been Daniel Kilgore. The first year starter also have given up the fewest quarterback pressures with only 3.

So what's the problem?

Good offensive line play comes down to 3 simple things: footwork, leverage and teamwork.

As my old offensive line coach used to say every practice to his guys, "It's called football because you play with your feet." When you see an offensive lineman get beat the first thing you should look at is his footwork. Is he moving his feet to stay in front of his man or is he reaching? Does he have a good base or are his feet out of position.

A good example of poor footwork occurred last week when Alex Boone gave up against the Kansas City Chiefs. On this play he gets his feet too far apart which allows Dontari Poe to get him off balance for the sack.

When talking about leverage with the offensive line we often think of staying low and driving the defender. This is true when it comes to run blocking, but with pass blocking leverage refers to the offensive lineman positioning himself so that the defender needs to take the longest route possible to the quarterback or in the direction of his help.

We saw a combination of poor footwork and poor leverage when Joe Staley gave up a sack against the Philadelphia Eagles in week 4. On this play Staley is one-on-one with Connor Barwin. As Staley goes out to get Barwin he is a bit off balance on to his left foot while also gives up inside leverage. The combination allows Barwin to easily push Staley out of the way and have a direct line to the quarterback.

This brings us to the issue of teamwork. Many times the offensive lineman will need to work in tandem to hold off a blitz or defensive line twist. This requires a good amount of communication and experience from working together.

On the 49ers first offensive possession against Philadelphia we saw Colin Kaepernick get sacked as a result of miscommunication between Alex Boone and Frank Gore. Watching the play it appears that Gore is expecting Boone to force the defensive tackle to his outside where Gore can help pick him up, but Boone instead steps out leaving the inside open for a free lane to Kaepernick. (Boone Whiff Philly)

While it often faces the blame from fans, the offensive line is not always the culprit when it comes to pressure. Sometimes that falls directly on the shoulders of the man they are protecting. According to ProFootballFocus, the 49ers offensive line has given Colin Kaepernick an average of 4.21 seconds to release the ball prior to a sack. That is the fourth best total in the league.

A good example of this occurred in the fourth quarter of the week two contest against Chicago. On this play Kaepernick ends up being sacked, but he had two options to get rid of the ball. As Kaepernick hits the top of his drop and begins to hitch he has Michael Crabtree coming open deep on an in route, and Derek Carrier open underneath on a drag. Instead of getting the ball out on time Kaepernick holds onto it too long and is taken down. (Kaepernick holds ball Chicago)

Another example of this occurred in week 4 against Philadelphia. On this play Kaepernick has Vernon Davis coming open deep over the middle but again does a poor job of recognizing the man coming open. This allows Daniel Kilgore to give up a pressure which forces Kaepernick out of the pocket where he then makes another mistake by running out of bounds for a 4 yard loss instead of throwing the ball away. (Holds ball when Davis is open)

As you can see there is no single thing that we can blame for the 49ers struggles in pass protection so far in 2014.

When you watch the 49ers on Monday night try to not watch the ball, and pay more attention to what is happening on the line of scrimmage. The team that is winning there will probably be winning on the scoreboard as well.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • Ladale
    You know Hammer I'm watching how the Cowboys handled that Hawks defensive front with those big Behemoths and I'm wondering why Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis have never been paired together to create a Hogs like tandem. To be truthful it seems as though to me that having Iupati and Staley together is like having a sports car and a tank together. You should be big boy on one side or athletic on one side. Just saying.
    Oct 13, 2014 at 9:04 AM
  • Brotha Tuna
    Oh yeah, a football blog, I remember that! But fundamentals are so boring.......zzzzz. ; >) Thanks Jack.
    Oct 11, 2014 at 8:23 AM
    Response: You got it Brotha
  • Scooter_McG
    That's quite surprising about Roethlisberger. I can only assume he has so far managed to avoid being sacked when he's been on the move. I've not watched a lot of their games this year, but in seasons past he has had a habit of holding the ball a lot longer than most QBs, buying time for guys to get open deep. Maybe the emergence of Le'Veon Bell as a multi-threat back has something to do with a change in philosophy, getting Big Ben to take the check down when he has it. If so, that's something Kaep could learn from.
    Oct 10, 2014 at 7:03 PM
    Response: I was a bit surprised too. When you mentioned it below I thought "that makes sense" but it seems as though he is getting the ball out quicker to the backs, etc.
  • Scooter_McG
    "Looking at the numbers Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck are both close to Kaepernick's average, and they tend to move around quite a bit as well." I'm guessing Ben Roethlisberger would be right up there as well, for exactly the same reason.
    Oct 10, 2014 at 4:25 PM
    Response: No. Roethlisberger is actually the 5th quickest so far this year.
  • Scooter_McG
    This is a great breakdown Jack, thanks for putting it together. I hadn't realised the average time to sack was so long for Kaep, but I wonder if it is being skewed by a couple of plays where he has extended the play quite a bit by running around before being sacked? There have been quite a few sacks and pressures that have come very quick as a result of poor blocking. Btw, the sack Staley gave up against the Eagles I'm pretty sure was against Brandon Graham, not Connor Barwin. Not that it really matters who it was, the same point applies!
    Oct 10, 2014 at 4:07 PM
    Response: Thanks Scooter. I think you're right about extending the play. Looking at the numbers Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck are both close to Kaepernick's average, and they tend to move around quite a bit as well.
  • dave t
    one word 'screen'. watch the pressure magically disappear when russel wilson starts popping screens to marshan lynch. Did this play get coffee spilled on it in the 49ers playbook>
    Oct 10, 2014 at 2:46 PM
    Response: The 49ers have been terrible with the few screens they've tried this year.
  • Ninermd
    Great read.... Love that you brought up footwork. Iuopti for instance... Was getting beat at the line to start the season. Squarely on his health footwork wasn't there. He says he's healthy and what do ya know. Playing like a rhino again.
    Oct 10, 2014 at 1:27 PM
  • claude balls
    Jack: Great stuff, but that's to be expected. According to ProFootballFocus, the 49ers offensive line has given Colin Kaepernick an average of 4.21 seconds to release the ball prior to a sack. That is the fourth best total in the league. Hey, for once, the stats confirm what I think I'm seeing. Does PFF provide data on time until pressure (as opposed to time until sack)? I think that number would help us more accurately understand what the problems are. Kaepernick is a bewildering mix of holds-the-ball-too-long and takes-off-too-early. I presume both stem from not recognizing when a receiver is going to come open. Hopefully, he develops that skill soon because it can be frustrating to watch.
    Oct 10, 2014 at 8:24 AM
    Response: Thanks Claude. Unfortunately they don't have a time until pressure stat, but they do show all 13 of his sacks happening after 2.6 seconds, but there is definitetly a mix of quick pressure that is forcing him to scramble and sacks as the result of holding onto the ball too long. His inconsistencies make it so tough on a play caller.
  • BOS9er
    Great stuff jack, I had a feeling that you were a lineman during ur playing days. One question though. Kilgore has only given up 3 QB pressures but it seems like most of the heat on CK is coming right up the middle. does that mean that DK is blocking his man and Iupati or boone/looney are wifing? or is there miscomunication with the backs as to who to pick up? Am i just imagining things?
    Oct 10, 2014 at 8:15 AM
    Response: Thanks BOS. Funny story, my brother who is 7 years older than me was a quarterback through PeeWee and high school. My first year in PeeWee I also played QB and hated it so the next year I switched to the line. Then when I went to high school I was still playing on the line my freshman year when we went in to get our gear and I grabbed a helmet with a lineman face mask. One of the coaches who had known me for years said, "don't worry we can change out that mask to a qb mask for you." When I told him I was playing on the line he looked at the head varsity coach and said, "this kid should be playing qb." I told them that I didn't want to, but the head coach told me that the next day I was moving positions and I ended up playing QB throughout high school, and then went back and forth as a backup qb and safety in junior college. Iupati and Boone are doing a lot of whiffing, but also having some miscommunication with the backs from time to time.
  • ricardo
    Great stuff Jack! The Staley whiff was big because that play took out A. Davis as well and he hasn't played since :(
    Oct 10, 2014 at 1:11 AM
  • Ladale
    I'd like to see Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis lined up on the same side. What a run blocking tandem that would be...
    Oct 10, 2014 at 12:54 AM
  • ChicagoNiner
    Jack, thank you so much for the OL and Sack break down. This is just excellen stuff. I had a feeling both CK and the OL were making mistakes. It would be great to find out why we do not have any short curls, slants or come back routes to help CK when there is pressure. I like GROW and the coaching staff but why not utilize levels and create quick outlets for ck to help him out.
    Oct 9, 2014 at 5:39 PM
    Response: No problem Chicago. Thanks for suggesting it. Regarding the short routes to help Kaepernick out, they do but Kaepernick is often slow to come off the deep route. The Crabtree/Carrier play is one example. There was another from the Bear game where he has Crabtree on a curl but instead takes off. The play calling isn't perfect but I put more of the blame on execution when it comes to the passing game.
  • rjpbobp
    Nice essay on the footwork, Jack. When one thinks about it, there are damn few sports that don't require very good footwork to be very good at the sport. thanx
    Oct 9, 2014 at 4:19 PM
    Response: Thank you.
  • Razoreater
    Dude, I feel like I'm in the film room. This is awesome. Keep it up! Btw, what's ProFootballFocus?
    Oct 9, 2014 at 4:13 PM
    Response: Thanks Razor. Boone has been pretty good with the one liners this last week.

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