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Problems at the End Same as the Beginning: Pressure and Protection

Dec 29, 2009 at 9:36 AM

At the beginning of the season the 49ers had three problems they had to resolve to take make the leap form perennial underachiever to playoff contender. They had to develop a pass rush, find an effective starting quarterback, and protect the quarterback from excessive pressure. The general consensus was if the 49ers could protect the starting quarterback and open holes for Frank Gore, all the while creating pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the season would end somewhere in the playoffs.

True to the last, oh - seven years, the 49ers failed to reach the post season. The offensive line did not protect Smith (or Hill) when it needed to. The defense could not seem to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks consistently. And Alex Smith still has not erased all doubt with his up and down performances over the final stanza of the season. The 49ers are exiting the season with only an inkling more answers than they entered it.

In the 49ers' 7 wins, they sacked the opposing team 21 times while allowing 14. The quarterbacks played predictably when they were getting shoved into the dirt, clawing to a paltry 56.4 average quarterback rating. Alex Smith and Shaun Hill were effective when there was adequate protection, averaging a passer rating of 85.4.

The other side of the pillow, unfortunately, is not so cool. In their 8 losses, the 49ers have pretty much flipped their sack totals reaching the opposing quarterback 15 times while allowing 21. And expectedly the quarterback ratings reflect this protection and pressure flip. Opposing quarterbacks thrived with an average rating of 96.3 while the 49ers' quarterbacks could only get to an average of 72.6.

Don't let the season's totals blind you like the 40 time blinds Al Davis. Sure, the 49ers currently rank 11th in the NFL in sacks. This almost top 10 team is the same team who couldn't get within a grasp of Aaron Rodgers flowing locks despite Green Bay's charted inability for protecting the quarterback. The 49ers defense is feast or famine - they recorded 44% of their sacks in just three games (STL, JAX, and SEA) leaving quarterbacks with a bit too much time in other games (ahem - BRETT FAVRE).

Even with the defensive shortcomings, the 49ers glaring problem is still that pedestrian offense. The NFL is, without a doubt, a passing league. Advanced NFL Statistics even went into ridiculous depth on the "defense wins championships" and came up with the answer that anyone who watches football already knows - good offenses are better than good defenses. The NFL's rules are even set up to favor passing teams. The 2000 Ravens were the exception, not the rule.

The 49ers cannot allow the NFL to pass them by. Alex Smith can be a productive starting quarterback in this league. When he has time, he can make the right read and hit the open receiver. But Smith is starting to show the early signs of David Carr Disease. (David Carr Disease: Feeling phantom pressure from being hit/sacked so many times. The leading symptoms are rushed throws, constant check-downs, and/or moving in the pocket frantically when there is no need to.) Two of Smith's best games were against Seattle (in Seattle) and Jacksonville. In both games Smith had time to throw the ball. The team did not allow a sack against Jacksonville and only allowed one versus Seattle.

The 49ers are exiting the season with only a little more clarity about those pesky pre-season questions. Smith is now clearly entrenched as the starter despite his inability to take the team on his shoulders. Ahmad Brooks is seemingly coming into his own as a pass rusher. And the offensive line will benefit from continuity and maybe a first round draft pick.

The problem is this is a similar story to the end of 2008. At the time, Hill was entrenched as the starter after proving he could "do enough" to win games. Parys Haralson was coming into his own as a pass rusher (he has 4.5 sacks this year as opposed to 8 last year) and the offensive line was going to benefit from continuity and a slight upgrade at right tackle. That upgrade never materialized.

Another offseason with the same questions - who will pressure and how will they protect? It's time the 49ers find some answers.
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.


  • Larry stanton
    Oscar, nice piece, and thanks for reminding the readers that this is the new age Peyton Manning and Drew Brees era, aka, the National Football Passing League. No more is this the 1960's GB "three yards and a pile of frozen turf", it is the "pass on first down to set up the run, keep 'em guessing on 2nd down and pass(with occasional run), and same on 3rd down. The run has been relegated (generally speaking) for when you get ahead, and need to grind it out, but still with the threat of passing. We still have a bunch of fans that don't subscribe to that, and unfortunately, seems like our HC, GM and OC don't either...all of which relegate us to watchers during playoffs. I couldn't agree less with OUR Time, who "thinks" alex has proven his futility. If we draft 2 OLs in rd 1 AND FA an all pro (FAneca, Hutchinson, Dielman type), then and only then will OUR time and the rest of us truly know what kind of qb we have. I think he's good enough, but has been plagued with the kind of OL play seen on really bad teams...of which we are one. Give him the OL and watch us leap into hyperspace. Failure to fix the OL with 3 new true starters is a recipe for the last 7 yrs.
    Jan 29, 2010 at 8:56 AM
  • hearstfan
    I agree completely with your article. I may be "grasping here" but I truly believe that Sing and McC enter this year as an evaluation season for the young talent they had drafted from previous years. Under Nolan, they did NOT develop the young talent. IMHO, the way they transitioned from Hill to Smith, and from Bruce to young receivers, developed Brooks, etc. was all "in the cards" as likely before the season. NOW, McC has no excuses in this off season - his RT (Snyder), Guard (Baas), OLB (Lawson), etc - have not developed as needed. If our needs are not addressed in FA and the draft (Oline, OLB, DL depth, DB) then it falls on McC.
    Jan 3, 2010 at 9:21 AM
    Response: I think you are right on one point. At this stage - when it comes to personnel accountability - it falls on McCloughan.
  • OurTime
    Darrell - I agree. I think our pass rush has improved, but we're just too inconsistent with it. We sacked Manning three times, but couldn't touch Matt Ryan. We got in Warner's face in both games, but couldn't get a hand on McNabb. With us, it seems like it's either feast or famine. I like what I see from Brooks and next year will be the magical "third year" for Lawson- so far he has not been living up to his first round status. Oscar- I agree that a decent pass rush should have been able to get the ever-sacked Rogers, but that game was weird for them. If you look at how many times Rogers has been sacked since and starting with playing us...the number has dramatically decreased. It's like that game was the O-line re-awakening for Green Bay- and they have protected well ever since. No excuses, though, but I do think that getting a fast corner/safety should be a huge priority. I think Goldson ha shown promise, but our secondary gets torn up on a regular basis. The only time we get picks is when we're playing a pick-throwing QB (Boller/Stanton/Cutler) or our pass rush is having a freakishly great day (Gerrard/Warner).
    Jan 2, 2010 at 10:32 PM
    Response: I totally agree with you. The pass rush is feast or famine. Great teams create feasts, so to speak. We need to do so more consistently.
  • erob52
    plain and simple, when we get a quarterback who can win football games, we got a chance. As long as we got Alex Smith starting next season, I wont get my hopes up. For one he has proven that he will never win a football game on the strength od his ability alone. No football game is ever won by one guy, but surely you can usualy name a quarter back who's play won the game. This is evident in the great Quarterbacks of our time. Philip Rivers carries his team to a win almost every other game. Brett Fvre, although struggling now, carried his squad past us(remember). Rothlesberger gets hounded in the backfield and still delivers a solid performance or a win. And Tom Brady and Payton Manning, they pretty much account for 50 percent of their teams wins. Alex Smith however doesnt have the (carry a team in the fourth quarter down by six to a victory)stuff, plain simple and proven. But there will be those who will say"well if the line had just blocked better, or if the reciever had just jumped higher, or if I had just worn my pink socks, we would have won the game". Alex Smith, this is your last chance(at least I hope)get a playoff game or leave town
    Jan 1, 2010 at 7:56 PM
    Response: I don't think the 49ers need another HOF QB under center. They need someone who can make all the necessary throws and lead the offense to victory. Smith showed he could do that in some games, but also didn't do anything special in others. In short, like the rest of the team, he proved inconsistent. Rather than cut him or start over, the team needs to find a way to produce consistent results.
  • Darrell K Walden
    Great article but I have to disagree with you about the niners pass rush. Its way better than last year, and yes Parys sack total dropped but the team contributed. Which to me is a better sign than one player exceling. Alex Smith is the truth, I will promise you a dramatic change by next season. Alex doesnt have the "David Carr disease". he has improvd tremendously this season. And its his job to lose next season. Alex Smith and his offesive coaching staff needs to find an identity for next season. For the 2010 draft I wont mind either getting Jerry Hughes, Sergio Kindles, or Jason pierre in the 2nd round to give some depth at our pass rush position. But I think the rotation with brooks, LAwson, and Haralson would be good enough. Niners need to add some speed and young swagga to their secondary with Joe Haden from Florida.
    Dec 31, 2009 at 2:02 AM
    Response: If it was way better than it was last year, why couldn't the team create pressure against teams like Green Bay? Even if the pass rush is improved, it is too inconsistent. One other thing, I've seen Kindle play just about every week and if he were really the talent everyone says he is he would not have disappeared this year on defense. Lamarr Houston outplayed him this year.
  • DieHard
    Oscar, I agree with you completely. It's pretty hard to imagine the team getting better without some significant personell additions. Fortunately we have two first round picks. I think one will have to be used on an offensive tackle. Looking at recent mock drafts, it looks like we will also be able to draft either C.J. Spiller, Joe Haden, or Taylor Mays. I would lean towards Spiller because he would fill two important roles. He is a blistering fast return man, and would also add big play ability to the offense. We could also take a big guard in the 2nd round, and maybe Sergio Kindle hangs around long enough for us to snag him. The offensive line can't just be sound, they need to be very good, and if we can pick up a lineman in FA and a couple in the draft, we SHOULD be there. Adding one more edge rusher to the mix should solidify things. Haralson, Brooks and Lawson will continue to improve if they push each other. Alex Smith will improve with said line improvements. Looking at the 49ers opponents next year, it's not hard to imagine 11 wins.
    Dec 30, 2009 at 10:07 AM
    Response: I think the 49ers really need to focus on the interior. Two offensive lineman would be ideal, but a LB/DE would be good too. This is the team's glaring deficiency.
  • The Dude in Brooklyn
    While I agree with much of what you wrote, you conveniently forgot some important parts of this story. 1. Turnovers were the 49ers biggest problem last year. This year has seen massive improvement on both sides of the ball. 2. The skill positions other than RB were all weak. Crabtree was unsigned, Morgan unproven, Bruce aging, Davis disappointing, Walker unknown, Jones overpaid, and Hill slowly developing. The skill positions now look like strengths. 3. Outside of Smith, the DL looked bad. With Franklin playing great and Sopoaga playing decently, DL might be the best unit on the team. NT had been a primary need. 4. Goldson has been a marked improvement over Roman and is likely to improve further. He can occupy one safety position for the foreseeable future. These are important corrected faults that improved the team this year. Some, as you wrote, remain uncorrected. I'd add the secondary to your list. Still, the 49ers have the tools to address those faults with three picks in the top 50 and no key free agents. QB is trickier but there's some hope there. Let's hope the pieces fall into place easily next decade.
    Dec 30, 2009 at 6:55 AM
    Response: I agree that some things that were weaknesses are now strengths. THe wide receiver position is one that the team tried to upgrade for years and now finally has an emerging, young unit with Morgan, Crabtree and Hill. Davis is also a team leader. That still doesn't account for the fact that the team has shown an inability to protect the QB at important times, and has not been able to get to the opposing QB consistently.
  • OurTime
    PART 3 You can't sell the O-line excuse anymore. Believe it or not, our O-line is actually mediocre, not terrible. This is the NFL and things break down- you have to make plays. What's my point? Alex Smith is not our guy- period. Everything has to be just right for him to complete a pass: O-line blocks perfect, receivers run perfect route, it has to be the shotgun, the wind and atmospheric pressure have to be at optimal conditions, etc... I don't buy that crap anymore: Make a friggn' play! Rogers gets sacked like it's going out of style- but he can still win football games. Same with Roethlesberger. They have pocket presence. They're winners- Smith is not. "Too many coordinators, too many injuries, O-line can't protect, but Rogers studied under Favre, blah, blah, blah". Excuses. The Eagle and the Vikings have given up 3 less sacks this year than we have and we can't play on the same level as those teams. I root for Smith because I know he will be our starter next year and he's all we got. But when you watch him, he doesn't have "it". You can never say, "man, as long as Smith is under center, we have a chance!" Get ready for another 8-8 yr w/ more apologies for our 1st round bust.
    Dec 29, 2009 at 9:32 PM
    Response: I agree, Smith is not to the level of Rodgers and Favre. But giving him more time will allow him to succeed. It's easier to successfully draft lineman than it is Quarterbacks. Smith is above average, and with a better supporting cast he can improve. If we can find a decent replacement for Smith the team should explore that too. However, that is a huge IF.
  • OurTime
    PART 2 But when it comes down to it, even teams with mediocre defenses can get into the playoffs. Our real problem is our offense. Part of our defensive problem is that we're out on the field way too much- how else is Willis leading the league in tackles? Well, maybe it's because he's out on the field the whole game. Our 3rd down conversion rate is 30%- that's only better than the Bills, Raiders and Chiefs. Yup, the Browns have a better 3rd down conversion rate than us. Look at the games where we had those massive turnovers: against the Bears we had 5 and we only scored 10 points. Against the Cardinals we had 7 takeaways and we scored a measly 24 points. Against the Lions we had 5 take always and we scored 20 points. Jesus. We're 0 for a lot whenever a team scores more than 20 points. That's not competitive football. 1, 2, 3 and out should be our theme song.
    Dec 29, 2009 at 9:13 PM
    Response: I agree. This is a league that requires teams to have explosive offenses in order to go far.
  • OurTime
    PART 1 Good article and I agree: our problems from last season have carried over to this one with almost the same feeling from last season. Last year we thoughT Haralson was developing into a good pass rusher- this year, not so much. Here we are at the end of this year and it looks like Brooks may be the answer...I guess we'll see, but I'm not holding my breath. Another defensive issue you didn't mention is our secondary...SLOW, SLOW, OLD and SLOW. With the exception of Goldson, who shows some promise, our secondary is garbage- even when we had Clemens (who we overpaid). All you have to do is watch our secondary against a team with speedy receivers to see how inept we are (i.e. Eagles, Packers, Falcons). Remember that game where Cutler threw 5 picks...yeah, he still threw for over 300 did Gerrard even though we sacked him like 5 times and had another bundle of turnovers...bottom line: bad pass rush + worse secondary = you get gouged.
    Dec 29, 2009 at 9:01 PM
    Response: I agreem the aging secondary is an area of concern. I think we have a great starting corner in Spencer and a good nickelback in Brown. With Clements' return I think you have the ability to draft a young CB and develop him.

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