Say this about the 49ers’ rebuilt offensive line: It will be better prepared for blitzes Saturday than it was four years ago when Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick were sacked six times in New Orleans.
Entering that preseason, the 49ers hadn’t seen a lot of blitzing in practice. A lockout had scuttled most of the offseason, and new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio seldom sent extra pass rushers after the quarterback in practice. In the last four seasons, the 49ers blitzed roughly 20 percent of the time, one of the lowest rates in the league.
This year has been different.
They’re coming with all sorts of exotic blitzes basically every single rep. It forces the offensive line to be able to think on the move and to be able to adjust quick.
49ers tackle Joe Staley
Defensive coordinator Eric Mangini’s more aggressive version of the 49ers’ defense has been blitzing often and sending one, two and three extra rushers at times. It’s one reason early training camp practices have favored the defense.
“They’re coming with all sorts of exotic blitzes basically every single rep,” tackle Joe Staley said. “It forces the offensive line to be able to think on the move and to be able to adjust quick.”
Though the 49ers may be more versed in that aspect this preseason, there are questions about how good the group will be overall, especially early in the season.
No position group was shuffled more during the offseason, and coach Jim Tomsula said Tuesday the team still hasn’t settled on a starting combination. When they take the field for Saturday’s exhibition against Houston, only one lineman – Staley, at left tackle – will be in the same spot he was a year ago. Based on training camp practices, the others will be:
▪ Left guard Alex Boone. He has started the last three seasons at right guard. This will be his first NFL game on the left side.
▪ Center Joe Looney. He mostly filled in at guard last year, including in the season opener, although he started at center against Seattle late in the season.
▪ Right guard Marcus Martin. He started eight games as a rookie last year, all at center.
▪ Right tackle Erik Pears. He played guard for Buffalo last season, although he mainly has been a tackle during a nine-year career.
Center and right guard – we’re still sorting that out as we go. So you’re seeing the combinations.
49ers coach Jim Tomsula
While Staley, Boone and Pears seem entrenched at their positions, the 49ers have been looking at different combinations at right guard and center. Brandon Thomas, who missed the 2014 season recovering from an ACL tear, has taken some snaps at right guard with the first-team offense. So has sixth-round draft pick Ian Silberman. When that happens, Martin slides to center and Looney goes to the sideline.
“Center and right guard – we’re still sorting that out as we go,” Tomsula said. “So you’re seeing the combinations.”
The 49ers had hoped Daniel Kilgore, who played well at center last year before being injured in Week 7, would be back for training camp. But he had a follow-up procedure in June and has been watching practices while leaning on a cane, with his foot in a walking boot. He’s unlikely to be ready for Week 1, and if he’s still on the physically unable-to-perform list when the season begins, he must miss the first six weeks.
Still, there are signs the line is starting to improve.
When training camp began, the defense dominated practice, especially when Mangini dialed up blitzes. Since then, there have been fewer missed assignments along the line, and the sessions, while still favoring the defense, aren’t as one-sided.
But there’s also a sense the 49ers must settle on a starting five soon so players at new positions beside new teammates can congeal.
“We’ve had a lot of different combinations out there – a lot of hard work,” Staley said. “What I think we’re doing a better job at right now is the overall understanding of the offense, especially in pass protection. (There aren’t) as many missed assignments and confusion.”