Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports


49ers’ Pass Protection Sole Silver Lining in Early Season Struggles

Anwar Jamison
Sep 27, 2016 at 9:04 AM


We have to find something positive to point to, don't we? Well, maybe we don't have to, but let's try anyway. That's not an easy task at all considering the steep decline in production of the 49ers in all facets of the game in the past two games. Sunday's 37-18 loss in Seattle was the exclamation point. If you wanted to place blame on the defense for surrendering a ton of early points and putting the offense behind the 8-ball, or the offense for not being able to put together any sustained drives, then you could.

Apparently the special teams didn't want to be left out. Phil Dawson's 53-yard field goal attempt midway through the second quarter not only missed, but looked like he was aiming for another dimension. Then, in the third quarter, with a chance to pin the Seahawks deep in their own territory, they allowed Tyler Lockett to return Pinion's punt 62 yards to the Niners' 26-yard line. At that point, it was official, the team had officially been beaten up in all three aspects of the game.

Rest easy though ladies and gentleman, there is one stat, a really important stat, that the 49ers actually lead the league in up to this point. Actually, they're tied for the lead, but let's not put a damper on the moment. The 49ers have only allowed two sacks, which is tied for best in the NFL. That should not be taken lightly.

Last season, the 49ers' offensive line was a sieve, allowing any defender who wanted a free run at the quarterback to pretty much take it. A retirement, a key free agent loss, and a key injury made that unit unrecognizable from the 2014 version.

Of all of the optimistic predictions tossed around this preseason, the offensive line seemed to be the sure thing of the bunch, and they've held up their end of the bargain. Of the two sacks that were allowed, one was given up by backup guard Marcus Martin while briefly replacing Andrew Tiller in the week 2 matchup with the Carolina Panthers. Realistically, Martin has demonstrated enough subpar play that he is never ever going to see the field, except in cases of an injury. So, the fact that the starting 5 offensive lineman have only given up one sack in three games is a phenomenal accomplishment.

Consider the three front sevens that the 49ers have faced in the first three weeks: The St. Louis Rams, Carolina Panthers, and Seattle Seahawks. It is not hyperbole to suggest that those are three of the top five front sevens in the National Football League. It's also even more impressive considering that both sacks came in week 2 against the Carolina Panthers, which means that the team didn't allow one sack against the Rams and Seahawks combined. That is impressive.

It is a fair question to ask how much of this success is due to Blaine Gabbert and his tendency to get rid of the ball quickly. That's obviously a factor, but you can't avoid sacks by merely getting rid of the ball quickly. Gabbert was sacked 25 times in his 8 starts during the 2015 season, including a franchise record 9 times against the Cleveland Browns alone, so even if you do attempt to get the ball out of your hands as quickly as possible, as Gabbert does, the line still has to provide enough protection for you to do that. They are doing an excellent job of that this year.

Despite the success in pass protection, the line hasn't been able to do the same job in the run game opening up holes for running backs Carlos Hyde and Shaun Draughn. However, conventional wisdom tells us that if a team has not hit any passes down the field, and rarely attempts them, the defense will play closer to the line of scrimmage, put more men in the box, and shut the running game completely down. To put it simply, due to the ineffectiveness of the passing game, the lineman have not been in a fair fight in the running game: they've been getting jumped.

To truly reap the benefits of this improved pass protection, the 49ers' will have to start seeing explosive plays in the passing game, or at least the threat of them. Gabbert's inability to make these plays have started the calls for his benching from media members, fans, and most everyone except Chip Kelly and the 49ers organization.

There are many who argue that Colin Kaepernick will not perform any better if given the opportunity. However, there is no evidence that this is the case. People love to wax poetic about the Kaepernick that exploded on the scene and took the league by storm and wonder if he'll ever come back. Rarely in that discussion do people point out the fact that Kaepernick, at that time, was playing behind what was generally recognized as the best offensive line in the NFL.

Many seem to forget some of the amazing throws that Kaepernick consistently made when he had time to throw. It was those type of throws, not just his running ability, that led ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski to proclaim," I truly believe Colin Kaepernick could be one of the greatest quarterbacks ever." Turn on the replay of the Super Bowl XLVII loss to the Ravens and listen to CBS analyst Phil Simms rave about pass after pass made by Kaepernick before finally concluding "he would be a great quarterback even if he couldn't run." People laugh at those statements in hindsight, but that's something that never would have been uttered about a quarterback who couldn't flat out throw the ball.

Many people forget that at the beginning of the 2014 season, with a terrible offensive line in front of him, people were openly wondering if Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was washed up, and even suggested that he should retired at the end of that season. This was a real conversation. But by the end of that season, he had put another ring on his finger. Yes, even one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time can look bad behind a poor offensive line.

With a putrid offensive line, and completely overmatched offensive coaching staff, it was not fair to judge either Blaine Gabbert or Colin Kaepernick based on their 2015 performance. However, we've now seen Gabbert for three games with a fully capable offensive coaching staff, and an offensive line that is providing some of the best pass protection in the league, and the results are disheartening to say the least. It's not only the statistics: that can happen against good defenses. It's more so the fact that when he does miss, it's often with a level of inaccuracy we haven't seen from any quarterback besides maybe Tim Tebow, and we see where that got him. It's simply illogical to write off Kaepernick's potential to come in and play significantly better behind this offensive line until we've seen it happen. Nobody knows what that will look like until we see it.

Whether it's Gabbert, Kaepernick or ultimately even Christian Ponder going forward, the 49ers must find a way to capitalize on this stellar pass protection that the offensive line is providing. As everyone who watches the 49ers knows, it can be here today and gone tomorrow.
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.


1 Comment

  • BigAl
    That's an excellent article, and exactly what I have been thinking. I'm going to submit my own soon...I will say on 3rd downs I'm not used to seeing a 49er QB actually have time to throw, and like you said it is disheartening to see the throws missed so badly. Gabberts shook, and we all know there's no such thing as 'halfway crooks'
    Sep 28, 2016 at 10:46 AM
    1

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