Jim Tomsula invariably has used “strong, heavy-handed guy” when asked about guard Andrew Tiller this year. Quinton Dial can't think of a better description.
As a member of the 49ers’ first-team defensive line, Dial frequently has been face mask-to-face mask with the 324-pound Tiller, first during the offseason and then when Tiller was placed on the practice squad as the regular season began.
“He’s a power-type offensive guard,” Dial said. “I remember facing guys like him in college – from like Mississippi State, LSU – and he’s definitely the guy you go (to) when you want to run the ball.”
Tiller is built for brute-force football, which starts to explain why he wasn’t on the 53-man roster to begin the season and why he’s likely to continue to split snaps at right guard with Jordan Devey against the Ravens on Sunday.
One of the big changes for 2015 has been the use of zone-blocking techniques, with which offensive-line coach Chris Foerster had success at his previous stop in Washington and brought with him to San Francisco.
Zone blocking calls for mobile offensive linemen who can move in unison laterally down the line of scrimmage. That’s why the 49ers’ stretch runs – at least the successful ones this season – mostly have been to the left behind tackle Joe Staley, one of the most nimble offensive linemen in the league, and guard Alex Boone.
The 49ers primarily have used zone blocking when running the ball with only a smattering of the power-blocking concepts preferred by the previous coaching staff. However, they used more power blocking than usual in their most recent outing against the Giants, the 49ers’ most successful offensive performance of the season.
In the previous four games, they power blocked on 13.5 percent of their runs, according to Pro Football Focus. Against the Giants, 10 of 24 designed running plays (41.7 percent) were power-based.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick also spent far more time under center against New York than he had previously. In the first four games, he lined up in the shotgun formation on 218 snaps and under center on only 27 snaps. Against the Giants, he was in shotgun 25 times and under center for 37 snaps.
“I think that was part of the plan – getting him under center, taking a drop (back) and getting the timing and the rhythm back,” fullback Bruce Miller said of Kaepernick. “And he looked comfortable. So I think that was the main thing – him feeling comfortable. The offense was rolling and making plays for him, and that’s what we’ve got to continue to do.”
Miller played 29 snaps against the Giants, by far his busiest outing of the season.
Tiller’s presence also seemed to signal a return to a more traditional, might-is-right, offensive style, although Devey was involved in most of the power-blocking plays. The 49ers called only seven running plays when Tiller was in the game.
The Giants game was Devey’s fifth start of the season. Tiller was inserted on the third series, and each played 34 snaps at right guard.
“He did a really good job in pass protection,” Staley said of Tiller’s debut. “I thought he used his hands really well.”
Tiller is familiar with the position. He played right guard at Syracuse and lined up there and at left guard during the 49ers’ spring drills. When Boone, who skipped the voluntary offseason sessions, arrived, Tiller dropped to the second-team unit. And when the 49ers wanted to take closer looks at youngsters like Brandon Thomas and Ian Silberman, Tiller was pushed so far down he fell off the 53-man roster and onto the practice squad.
Now he’s back.
Tiller was drafted by the Saints in the sixth round in 2012. But before the Giants game, he had played exactly one regular-season snap, which came last year against Seattle when the 49ers sent in extra offensive linemen in a power package.
“It didn’t feel real at first. It was like, ‘Wow. It’s finally here, I’m finally in an NFL game.’ ” Tiller, who grew up in Queens and Central Islip, N.Y., said of his first series Sunday. “Then it was like, ‘Game on. This is football.’ ”
Asked if the 49ers want to settle on one player at right guard, offensive coordinator Geep Chryst said they’d eventually like to have stability there. But he noted that both Tiller and Devey played well against the Giants and that as of now the offense seems to be benefiting from the competition.
“They have their own attributes, their strengths and weaknesses,” Chryst said. “So moving forward, I think it’s something that you want to watch and monitor like Chris (Foerster) does not only in games but during practice, too.”