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From Center to Left

Aug 11, 2008 at 8:08 AM

The Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle Rocky Bernard blasted through a porous offensive line early last season (2007), and planted San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith so far into the ground it crushed shoulder. That play illustrated a pure lack of communication and cohesiveness on this offensive line that is still in existence today. Alex would eventually miss the rest of the 2007 season and allegations would fly concerning his durability and toughness to play through injury. Meanwhile, the real culprits that allowed a record breaking number of sacks that season, stand before us reshuffled and ready for another chance.

Center Eric Heitmann is the grand maestro of the offensive line. He's received two Bobb McKittrick awards, which are the pinnacle highlights to an offensive lineman playing on a team that with a proud tradition of producing some of the best offensive lines within the NFL today. Bobb was the absolute best as an offensive line coach who had a particular knack for smaller offensive linemen that flew under the radar of other teams. He was able to take late round draft pick linemen and rookie un-drafted free agents to new heights within the development stages of their NFL careers. He was famous for his gap runs, where his linemen had specific assigned men to block. He used angles, and a set system of traps, counters and sweeps to alleviate his line's lack of size. Yet when you look at the most successful offensive lines in the NFL over the long term the teams that had smaller lines in girth and size had the best offensive statistics and overall playoff success.

Mr. Heitmann took over for the beloved Jeremy Newberry after chronic injuries hampered his knees and thus encouraged the management to make the inevitable conclusion that younger was better. Eric learned a great deal from Jeremy Newberry, who in my opinion was a class act as an NFL center. Newberry displayed tremendous courage and ability to play through a game while in immense pain.

Heitmann is in his seventh year out of Stanford, and has won the respect he deserves from a line littered with differing personalities. He played every snap as the starting center in 2007, and was also an Ed Block Courage award recipient after a spectacular return from a broken leg late in the 2006 NFL season. A center must be a leader every play on the field and within the locker room. Any lineman that has a question or wants to raise something with the staff goes through Heitmann to get there. However despite an improved line back in 2005 and 2006, the line that appeared in 2007 was mostly a mirror of its true self.

Some would point to the offensive line coach George Warhop and wonder why he was retained for 2008, especially considering that the team was ranked dead last inevery conceivable offensive statistic. Some would point at rookie offensive coordinator Jim Hostler and say he had a substantial part in creating a turn off the television, "I've had enough of this," type controversy. Still some would point at Mike Nolan, because he was predictable out on the field and was not a risk-taker. Others point out that internal changes should have taken place on the line. And some would blame the center in Mr. Heitmann for not quite being himself after his broken leg injury late in the 2006 season.

Yielding a league high 55 sacks in one season is a sickening reality call we don't ever want to see again. The line was easily manipulated when it came to the blitz, which in some degree falls as a responsibility to the center as they are the ones that make most of the line calls. He also played a bit tentatively last season as he was pushed back on well synchronized bull rushes.

Does Mr. Heitmann lack confidence in himself? Was he the same player prior to his injury in 2006? He has readily admitted he was not the same person as indicated in our statistical data from that season. He wants to make amends and put that behind him as he looks at 2008. Mike Martz will allow Mr. Heitmann even more autonomy in making line calls as his offensive system demands it.

Competition was acquired via the draft this season in fourth-round choice Cody Wallace. He will push gently on the back of Eric to let him know he is there, but he is far enough away considering he has been virtually manhandled on the majority of snaps he has taken thus far in training camp. Cody's blocking though, is coming along and is technically sound and as an undersized player he has begun to understand how to use his leverage to his advantage. Toughness and being stout at the point of attack will come with more playing time and exposure.

All in all the line's state of mind is the responsibility of Eric Heitmann. He must have a finger on it at all times and needs to up the fever pitch for solidarity with the changes at the positions of right and left tackle. Jonas Jennings aired his disapproval of being moved from the left to the right and seems a bit embarrassed in that he as he may see this change with second-year player Joe Staley as a demotion of sorts.

But here are some facts we all know. He was drafted back in 2006 to be the eventual starting left tackle based on his first-round pick status and his success in Central Michigan. The timetable thus had already been set. Jonas Jennings' durability has been a tremendous negative to the line's ability to maintain continuity and consistency. If there is anyone that must be a stable force on the line from one game to the next, it has to be the left tackle that protects the blind side of the quarterback and takes on some of the best pure pass rushers in the NFL on any given Sunday.

Considering the amount of money we dedicated to Jennings and the very fact that he has missed parts of 32 of his 48 games due to injury makes one think moving Staley to left tackle is a no-brainer after all. Thirty-six million dollars should buy you a competent and reliable starter on the left side of your line. It hadn't, so top management suggested this move with Joe Staley take place sooner rather than later.

Joe Staley is the first offensive lineman in this franchises' 62-year history ever to start all 16 games in his rookie season. In fact, he played as well if not better than all his counterparts on this line, and was in many opinions the best lineman within the line in all of 2007.

Joe was sidelined for a bit as training camp got underway with a foot infection that was thought to be a bug bite. His right foot swelled to epic proportions that he couldn't even put any kind of weight on it let alone move any of his toes. He had cut his foot on a stick while walking on the beach of Lake Michigan two weeks earlier. He was forced to make two hospital trips, the last an overnight stay at Stanford Hospital, to help kill the nasty infection.

Now he is being counted on to be an unmovable force on the left side of the line, which requires him to have two healthy feet with great leverage ability. He is now doing that and we can all have fun watching his transition as the pre-season is already underway. Joe takes his place next to another dedicated and reliable veteran in Adam Snyder at left guard where the mammoth All-Pro Larry Allen held this position before retiring.

The big strapping Adam Snyder out of Oregon has been the perfect bandage when the line has experienced personnel bleeding due to injuries. He started 11 games last season at left tackle because Jonas Jennings was again out due to the injury bug (or should I say a hangnail or something?). Now he stands in at left guard, a position he may be able to call his home once and for all.

When Larry Allen was at left guard he had a knack for assisting the line in pulling from one side to the other. It will be up to Adam Snyder to take over that role with a featured backfield of Frank Gore and DeShaun Foster. Snyder has a combined 23 starts at both right and left tackle under his belt and has been a nomad of sorts in that he really hasn't settled down with anything permanent so far as a real position. If anyone can help Staley settle into the left tackle position it will be Adam Snyder who had experience there previously. I believe they will compliment each other immensely as the season progresses and we have the distinct ability to produce one of the best left sides in the NFL, despite the loss of perennial Pro Bowler Larry Allen and Jonas Jennings moving over to the right tackle position.

Again anything that is an improvement over what happened in 2007 will be welcomed. We now have two offensive line coaches in George Warhop and Chris Forester. One will settle in on running aspects of the line in relation to the rushing attack and the other will use their expertise on improving pass protection, something the 49ers have been too long without.

I have a great passion for the offensive line because they are the virtual centerpiece of the team in relation to the quarterback. Everything must be started by them and everything must go through them. Having one another's back starts and ends with the offensive line. Chilo Rachel out of USC and Cody Wallace out of Texas A&M have been drafted to become the next great members of a line destined for greatness again. Free agent pick-up veteran Barry Sims also offers great insurance to both the right and left tackle positions. Sims has the experience and muscle to handle either situation should an injury rear its ugly head.

Finally as we cross out our first pre-season loss 18-6 against the Oakland Raiders, questions still abound to the overall offensive philosophy and the Mike Martz offense. We obviously don't have an easy road lying ahead of us at any juncture until we see pure execution on the field and a bit more risk taking. The collective effort to find improvement and to become more versatile and respected as a true offense must come from one's head and heart. Until that happens, success will always be averted.

Sources of Information: Mercury News.com, SF Gate.com, Inside Bay Area.com, NFL.com and my own personal analysis and opinion.
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.


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