Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports


Offensive Line: Can Chris Foerster Plug the Gaps?

Jul 27, 2015 at 1:47 PM10


The 49ers offensive line may simultaneously represesent the team's most glaring question mark and the team's best hope for better offensive production. Colin Kaepernick has shown that he can produce yards and points when he has consistently reliable protection, and the team appears to have acquired a stable of talented backs that can excell in an offense that appears to be moving toward an emphasis on zone running.

Since Alex Gibbs retired from coaching, three names are frequently mentioned as the best coaches of the zone blocking scheme (ZBS): Tom Cable, Chris Foerster, and Mike Solari. Of the last two names, one is the new 49ers OL coach, and the other is the outgoing 49ers OL coach. Mike Solari put in his assistant OL coach under 49ers and ZBS legend Bob McKittrick. He installed some occasionally-used zone concepts with the 49ers, but the offensive play calling was dominated by power runs that suited the large, powerful linemen on the roster. Chris Foerster helped establish a very successful running game with the Redskins before coming back to the 49ers, where he had previously served as the OL coach in the 2008 and 2009 seasons. Since many 49er fans remember the 2008 and 2009 seasons with frustration, it is reasonable to wonder what Foerster will bring to the 49ers in his current term.

Offensive lines are judged by the holes they open for the running game and the protection they provide in the passing game. It seems fair that a discussion regarding an offensive line coach should begin with a look at the rushing yards and sacks allowed attributed to the offenses they coach. Chris Foerster has most recently coached the offensive lines for the Redskins (2010-2014), 49ers (2008-2009), and Ravens (2006-2007). We'll look at each situation individually to try and assess Foerster's influence.

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Redskins (2010-2014): In 2009, the Redskins were the 27th ranked rushing offense in the league and with the 29th yards per carry in the league. They allowed 46 sacks (28th in the league in pass protection) with 533 passing attempts. When Shanahan was hired in 2010, he brought in the zone blocking scheme and Foerster.

The Redskins were the 30th ranked rushing offense in 2010, and they again allowed 46 sacks (again 28th) in 2010. In 2011, they had the 25th ranked rushing offense and surrendered 41 sacks (22nd). In 2012, the Redskins ran for 2709 yards (1st in the NFL) and gave up 33 sacks (12th). In 2013 they produced 2164 yards on the ground (5th) and allowed 43 sacks (19th). In 2014, they ran for 1691 yards (19th) and gave up 58 sacks (31st).

49ers (2008-2009): In 2007, the year before Foerster arrived, the 49ers were 27th in rushing and gave up 55 sacks (tied for 31st). In Foerster's first year (2008), the 49ers ran for 1599 yards (27th again) and surrendered another 55 sacks (last). In 2009, the 49ers amassed 1600 rushing yards (25th) and allowed 40 sacks (20th).

Ravens (2006-2007): Prior to Foerster's arrival, the Ravens ran for 1605 yards (21st) and allowed 36 sacks (27th). In 2006, Foerster took over the offensive line, and the Ravens gained 1637 (25th) yards rushing, and they surrendered 17 sacks (2nd). In 2007, they added 1797 yards on the ground (16th) and they gave up 39 sacks (21st).

At this first glance, Foerster looks like an average coach who struck gold on occasion, as his lines tend to perform similarly in his first year with each team to the production they contributed in the year before he came on staff. We're going to explore beyond the raw numbers to see if Foerster made any demonstrable impact on the units he was responsible for.

In 2010 and 2011, the Redskins maintained a respectable 4.2 and 4.0 yards per carry (16th and 22nd in the NFL), respectively, but had the second and seventh-fewest rushing attempts in the NFL. Their low rushing totals and high sack numbers were directly related to them having the fourth and fifth-most passing attempts in the league, while Shanahan tried to convince himself that he could win big with an aging Donovan McNabb and erratic Rex Grossman at QB. Prior to Foerster's first year, the Redskins had given up the same number of sacks with 2 less passing attempts.

In 2012, the Redskins added Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris to their roster, and they led the league in rushing and averaged an impressive 5.2 yards per carry, while attempting less passes than all but two teams in the NFL. The huge jump in production can be attributed to having a much better running back (Morris is better than Ryan Torain and Roy Helu, a guy who couldn't crack the 49ers 90 man roster after a tryout), and getting over 800 yards from the QB position, but the basic numbers still don't tell the whole story. In 2010, the Redskins offensive line lost 13 starts due to injury. In 2011, the offensive line lost 18 starts due to injury. In 2012, only one start was lost due to injury along the offensive front. In 2013, zero starts were lost to injury.

While protecting his rookie QB (from interceptions, not injury), Shanahan had his offense attempt the second-most running plays in the league and the third-fewest passing plays. That the Redskins still gave up 33 sacks on so few passing attempts is not encouraging. Looking at the roster, it appears that Foerster was doing solid work with a unit that boasted a very talented left tackle (Trent Williams), but offered late round and undrafted journeyman talent along the rest of the line Kory Lichtensteiger, Will Montgomery, Chris Chester, and Tyler Polumbus.

2014 was a giant statistical step back, but Foerster's unit again maintained a solid yards per carry average (4.2 yards). Jay Gruden's first year at the helm featured three different starting quarterbacks (Griffin, Kirk Cousins, and Colt McCoy), all of whom frequently had to throw in obvious scenarios, as the team was consistently playing from behind, presenting obvious opportunities for pass rushers and greatly limiting rushing attempts (their 401 attempts were 21st in the NFL). Predictably, the sack numbers increased dramatically.

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The two seasons (2008-2009) Foerster spent in San Francisco must have been among the most frustrating of his career. With years of experience coaching the zone blocking scheme, he was asked by Mike Nolan and Mike Martz to get better production from a beat-up unit in a man/gap blocking scheme. That's like taking a dog with extensive training and years of experience serving as a seeing-eye dog and deciding that such a smart dog should be capable of sniffing for bombs or drugs. The dog would obviously be intelligent enough to learn and perform the task you've decided to assign to it, but all of its training and experience make it most qualified for a different task.

Foerster actually performed very well, under the circumstances. Working outside of his professional sweet spot, he also had to struggle to piece together a starting unit in a year where the 49ers' offensive line lost a staggering 37 starts due to injury (14 of which were by Jonas Jennings, who combined elite left tackle talent with connective tissues seemingly made of rice paper). The 49ers were last in the league in sacks, but Mike Martz insisted upon calling a grossly disproportionate number of long-developing pass plays with an injured and shuffled line, while starting Shaun Hill and the impossibly overwhelmed JT O'Sullivan at quarterback.

Martz also refused to allow his quarterbacks to audible out of his called plays, insisting that he had designed perfect passing plays that always had a correct adjustment for whatever the defense presented. It is not at all surprising to realize that Martz's offenses are always near the top of the league in sacks and quarterback hits. Considering that the 49ers had surrendered the same number of sacks the year before Foerster arrived, without 2008's tremendous mountain of injuries and Martz's insistence upon drop-back passing, it's easy to make an argument that Foerster actually improved the performance of the unit in his first year.

After the 2008 season, Mike Singletary fired Martz and eventually hired Jimmy Raye, who's presentation of Singletary's vision most frequently consisted of incorporating the man/gap blocking scheme on first and second down, then throwing the ball on third and long. Once again, Foerster's unit maintained a respectable average yards per carry (4.3; good for 12th in the league), even though teams appeared to always know when the run was coming. The unit cut down the number of sacks they surrendered to 40, which was much closer to the league average. He managed this task while once again coaching outside of his preferred skill set, all the while managing a roster that featured the likes of Chilo Rachal and Adam Snyder as starters for 15 and 16 games, respectively.

In Baltimore, Brian Billick leaned heavily upon Rex Ryan's defense to dominate games, and he employed an offensive strategy of trying to score just enough points to not lose games, while not taking offensive risks that could result in turnovers or bad field position. 49er fans are likely familiar with this offensive approach from the last decade of defense-driven football. Foerster arrived to help a struggling offense that was averaging 3.6 yards per carry while sitting in the bottom third of the league in pass protection. While the yards per carry average actually dropped to 3.4, Foerster helped the line cut the number of sacks they allowed to 17, which was less than half of the previous year's sack total.

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Foerster managed this feat with a unit composed of aging star Jonathan Ogden and two late round draftees and two undrafted linemen. Jamal Lewis had begun to succumb to the injuries and tremendous workload he accumulated earlier in his career, having carried the ball over 300 times in each of his first six seasons in which his starts were not limited by injury.

In 2007, Lewis was replaced by Willis McGahee, and Foerster got to break in two impressive rookies on the right side: RG Ben Grubbs and RT (at the time) Marshall Yanda. Even as the rookies learned their craft and the offense adjusted to new terminology and tendencies from new OC Rick Neuheisel (who only lasted one year), the rushing yards per carry increased to 4.0. The rotating QB roster of Steve McNair, Kyle Boller, and Troy Smith, along with the steep learning curve for the rookie wall on the right side of the line, contributed to the line allowing a more pedestrian 39 sacks.

While extenuating circumstances, such as injury and changing offensive coordinators, cause occasional fluxuations in the trend, it appears that Chris Foerster has demonstrated moderate improvement in the production of each line he coaches, in each of his previous three stops. He does not appear to be one of the few truly exceptional coaches who can extract dominant play from substandard talent, but he seems adept at getting his units to play up to and occasionally slightly above their potential and circumstances.

In recent 49er memory, he compares favorably to Vic Fangio, a well-traveled, intensely knowledgeable coach who is able to succeed with sufficient talent. Foerster's success in Baltimore (while Fangio was the LB coach, coincidentally enough), getting two rookies up to speed and improving the line at the same time, should be encouraging for 49er fans who can reasonably expect at least two positions on the line to be filled by players who have not started at those positions with the 49ers previously. Fans should also be encouraged by the likelihood that the 49ers currently have as much talent in their current OL unit as Foerster has presided over in his coaching history.

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49er fans should expect the team to continue to run the ball well, with a greater number of zone running plays. If the unit remains healthy, the yards per carry average should increase as the unit gains familiarity with one another and their respective roles and tendencies, and pass protection should improve markedly from last season. If the 49ers suffer injuries on the line, fans should expect Foerster to help the unit weather that storm well, as his units have maintained respectable ypc averages through injury-ravaged seasons in the past.
The views within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


10 Comments

  • Shane
    Great detailed article! I just wanted to get your take on an o line issue. I don't understand why they wouldn't be playing Boone at RT. We have an abundance of (talent?) young guys that the coaches like to play inside. Martin, looney, Thomas, Kilgore, even Farrell. Why wouldn't you take your second best linemen and put him at his natural position, tackle, and let the young guys gel at G/C? They have pears playing RT who's been on like 5 teams in ten years, sucked in Buf last year and has been getting whipped in practice so far. I'm not sure what we are doing here. Thank you
    Aug 5, 2015 at 8:17 PM
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    Response: Good question. I fully expected Boone to get reps at RT and win that competition. That doesn't seem very likely anymore. I believe the staff wants him on the left with Staley to form one dominant side. With Iupati gone, Boone becomes our most experienced pulling G (though Looney might be better at it). Of they want to run power right, they'll need a good pulling G on the left.
  • don
    On paper breakdown I am disappointed. We have one stalwart, Joe Staley. Alex Boone is coming off a poor season and the rest are travelled vets or untested guys. Is it wise to go to a percentage of zone blocking plays with a group so lacking any cohesiveness? Personally I would keep it simple, see if they can execute basic blocks and protect the QB...
    Jul 30, 2015 at 5:50 PM
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    Response: Zone blocking tends to promote unit cohesion. Think of Seattle's OL over the last 2 years. They've suffered several key injuries, yet they can plug in reserves with little penalty to their prduction. Since zone blocking relies heavily on seamless exchanges on combo blocks, success depends more on footwork, hand placement, and overall awareness than upon familiarity with your adjacent lineman's idiosyncrasies.
  • JD
    Fantastic article. Thanks for the great read. I can't wait to read more. Do you think all of our RBs can do well behind a line using the ZBS or are there certain backs on the roster that could benefit more from it?
    Jul 28, 2015 at 11:14 PM
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    Response: I think all of the 49ers backs can run well in a ZBS. I think Hyde and Hunter will be particularly good. Hyde was significantly better on zone runs in 2014.
  • NCommand
    Well done!
    Jul 28, 2015 at 11:58 AM
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  • NinerGM
    I do have to say, I have my concerns about Forrester. There's a trend in the stats you mention; every where he's been his first year, that team has been either at the bottom or rushing and highs in the league with sacks allowed. If this is the case with this team, it spells an early doom for the season. I wasn't impressed with Forrester when he was here previously so the line will need to be miraculously better relative to last year.
    Jul 28, 2015 at 8:45 AM
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    Response: I'm actually optimistic about Foerster. I didn't think he was bad here previously. I think he had to weather numerous injuries and teach a less-than-ideal scheme under OCs that did the OL no favors. Looking beyond the basic stats, I can see clear reasons why he is considered among the best in the league, and why Staley was pumped when he was informed of the hire.
  • Marty
    You could tell most of practice time was about the power running game. Timing was critical. All the offensive players had assignments. One mistake by anyone resulted in the play failing. There was not much time to work on the passing game in practice. Thats why the 49ers finished 30th in 2014. You don't score points in the NFL just running the ball. Zone blocking takes less practice time. Seattle & GB use it most of the time. Lynch & Lacy are pretty successful in this scheme. Other than Boldin catching a short pass & physically running over DBs the 49ers passing game has been a total disaster. Look for the 49ers to spend more practice time developing a passing game. The key will be Kaepernick. He will have many veteran playmakers that can score. This will be the key to success in 2015. Looking at the offense in the west the 49ers could easily be the best in 2015.
    Jul 28, 2015 at 5:12 AM
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  • Bill
    Encouraging news. SF has been drafting a year or so ahead off need. With players like Thomas, but the Davis retirement threw that all off. I knew they said they started from scratch with the playbook, to suite the players they have. Let's hope that's the case.
    Jul 27, 2015 at 8:48 PM
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  • GTFIII
    Good article. It might be wishful thinking but... I think the point is valid, There is a ton of really young talent that needs to be developed. To develop that talent you need great teachers. Baalke isn't with the mainstream media stuff. He does his homework, His drafts will be on the field this year and we will see if his strategy has paid off. It seems to me like he knows the criteria to building a good product.
    Jul 27, 2015 at 8:20 PM
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  • b
    First time i appreciate an article coming from this website. Very good job, Thank you.
    Jul 27, 2015 at 5:52 PM
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  • Ed
    You know there's wishful thinking going on when you start hanging your hopes on the position coaches. Good coaches don't make good offensive lines - good offensive lineman make good offensive lines. Behind Staley (who will be 31 and whose play is assured to decline soon if not this season) they really have Alex Boone (who has proved to be a solid guard but did not play very well last year), two competent options at centre and two major holes. Sure, like all teams, they have some promising (and unproven) young players, but to expect them to play at the level of Iupata and Davis is fanciful. In short, the O-line is unlikely to be much better and could actually be worse. That's assuming Staley and Boone stay healthy.
    Jul 27, 2015 at 4:23 PM
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    Response: Thank you for the feedback. I'm afraid that you may have missed the point of this post. I believe Trent Baalke has stocked this team with a lot of young talent that needs to be developed. I think the line includes very talented, unproven young players who need to be developed. I think Chris Foerster's history shows that he has performed pretty well in scenarios like that. His second year in Baltimore, he had to get two ROOKIES on the field right next to each other, and he managed to lead his unit to a better ypc than the previous year and middle of the road pass protection. In his last three stops, he inherited a top-end LT (to be fair, Ogden was slowed by injuries), which he has here. He had to make due with late round draftees and UDFA at the other stops, except for his 2008-2009 stint in SF, where Baas and Rachal were 2nd rounders. That talent in SF was largely negated by all of the lost starts the 2008 team sufered, but the ypc stayed respectable. This time in SF, he has more highly rated talent than in his other stops and he gets to run more of the scheme he is most familiar with. I know that players play the game, and teams must have talent to win. I think I directly stated that Foerster is not a coach who can manufacture a dominant unit without suficient talent. I simply believe the roster has enough talent, and I believe that Foerster's recent history indicates that it is more likely than not that he can develop that talent into a productive unit.

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