Alex Smith

Dissecting the 49ers’ offensive line, play by horrible play

After gaining only 206 total yards offensively against the Dallas Cowboys, the conventional wisdom was that the offensive line was to blame. But how bad are they? And who’s to blame? With those things in mind, with an eye toward the performances of Alex Smith, Frank Gore and the ever-dwindling list of receivers, I watched and re-watched each offensive play that gained less than four yards, then watched each play at least a couple more times in slow-motion. Here are the pathetic offensive plays, in all their non-glory.

First Quarter

2nd at 10; 7:00; SF 20
Chilo Rachal gets beaten on a swim move from Kenyon Coleman. Alex Smith hurries his throw, incomplete to the left side (intended for Braylon Edwards).
Blame: Rachal

2nd and 1; 5:48; midfield
Rachal supposed to pull left, fails to engage with Sean Lee who runs about 8 yards to stop Frank Gore for a loss of a yard. Everyone got moved back, particularly Mike Iupati who was thrown backward by Josh Brent.
Blame: Rachal, Iupati

3rd and 2; 5:00; SF 49
Designed rollout by Smith to the right, incomplete pass to Delanie Walker. Decent blocking except Coleman rushed right past Vernon Davis.
Blame: V. Davis

2nd and 2; 2:50; SF 39
Line shift before the play (Joe Staley and Davis from the right side of the line to the left). Nobody blocks Keith Brooking or DeMarcus Ware, who runs from the other end of the line to converge with Brooking to tackle Gore, who takes it to the left for a 1-yard gain.
Blame: inconclusive

Second Quarter

1st and 10; 15:00; Dallas 41
Camera shows Mike Scolari (Niners O-line coach) while Brian Billick exclaims, “This is a good offensive line that has the chance to stay together for a while.” Right on cue Jonathan Goodwin gets steamrolled by Brent, Anthony Spencer blitzes and goes almost untouched by Vernon Davis, and cornerback Alan Ball takes time off from directing “True Blood” to pressure Smith on the blitz. Spencer’s credited with the sack that pushes the Niners back 9 yards.
Blame: Goodwin, V. Davis

3rd and 6; 14:00; Dallas 41
(This play actually went for good yardage, but there was an o-line breakdown just the same): Jason Hatcher gets past everyone (Goodwin blocks absolutely no one) and crushes Smith straight-on. Smith still completes a nice 1st down pass to Ted Ginn.
Blame: Goodwin

1st and 10; 13:10; Dallas 27
Running play off right tackle. No blatant missed assignments, but no hole either. Maybe that’s why Jim Harbaugh keeps talking about angles this week. This play looks like it was pretty close to leading to a long run for Gore, but it went for a negligible gain.
Blame: inconclusive

1st and goal; 12:30; Dallas 1
Vernon Davis looks like he’s trying to engage and release, but he’s covered in the end zone. Alex tries to take it to the right pylon but is stopped for a loss of a yard by LB Bradie James.
Blame: inconclusive (Smith should’ve thrown it away)

1st and 10; 10:46; Dallas 48
Run to left side; Moran Norris whiffs on Sean Lee, Joe Staley crumbles without even really engaging at all with Spencer, clutches knee after falling to the grass. Spencer and Lee tackle Gore for a 1-yard loss.
Blame: Staley, Norris

2nd and 6; 8:10; Dallas 33
Pitch to Gore to the left. Play takes too long to develop, Spencer’s able to come all the way from the right side and tackle Gore from behind.
Blame: inconclusive

2nd and 6; 6:27; Dallas 12
Smith throws over the middle to Ginn, who drops a pass that would have given the Niners a 3rd and 1 situation. In the end it doesn’t matter as Smith throws a TD pass to Kyle Williams on the next play.
Blame: Ginn (drop)

1st and 10; 5:20; SF 30
Adam Snyder in for Rachal. Handoff to Gore to moves to the right and cuts left (probably because nobody on the right side, including the center Goodwin, got any type of push at all. Gore dives forward to get back to the line of scrimmage.
Blame: Goodwin

2nd and 10; 4:40; SF 30
Blitz, which is blocked well on the right side (Gore made an especially nice block on blitz pickup). On the left side, Staley takes Ware, Iupati blocks Jay Ratliff and Hatcher comes between the two unblocked for an easy 9-yard sack (credited to Ratliff).
Blame: Staley/Iupati

3rd and 19; 4:00; SF 21
Snyder gets blown up by Ratliff, who tackles Gore. No gain on the play.
Blame: Snyder

Third Quarter

1st and 10; 15:00; SF 20
Ware pushes Staley into Smith with a bull rush; Smith throws incomplete.
Blame: Staley

2nd and 10; 14:50; SF 20
Run up the middle, Delanie Walker doesn’t get to James soon enough; James stops Gore after a 2-yard carry.
Blame: Walker (although you can’t blame Walker too much there — he had a lot of ground to cover)

3rd and 8; 14:15; SF 22
Corner blitz by Ball, who’s picked up by Gore. Staley barely touches Spencer, ends up partially blocking Iupati, who fails to engage Hatcher. Hatcher ends up with the sack. Walker could’ve helped on the play, but after missing both Spencer and Hatcher he runs to the flat but it’s too late for Smith to throw to Walker as he’s already going down.
Blame: Staley, Iupati, Walker (but mostly Staley)

1st and 10; 9:52; SF 20
Another run up the middle for Gore. Anthony Davis engages with Coleman but loses him; Coleman moves to the middle and easily stops Gore after a 2-yard gain. Not a horrible play by Davis but if he could have kept Coleman to the right there would have been a nice hole.
Blame: A. Davis

2nd and 8; 9:15; SF 22
Not bad blocking, Smith runs to the left and fires too high to Delanie Walker, who was wide open in the flat.
Blame: Smith

3rd and 8; 9:09; SF 22
Smith gets fooled when Ball (who seems like he’s everywhere in this game) drops into coverage. Terrible throw, although it seems like Davis doesn’t even turn around for the ball. Side note: when Ball comes up with the interception, the roar from the crowd is deafening.
Blame: Smith

1st and 10; 6:40; Dallas 49
Speed rush by Ware around the outside, Staley has no answer. Iupati tries to help but he’s too late, actually trips up Staley. Sack for Ware with a great (lucky?) effort by Smith to hold onto the ball with his right hand.
Blame: Staley

2nd and 17; 6:00; SF 44
Strange play. Shotgun, with Walker on Smith’s left side running around him to the right. Looks like option pitch might be a possibility, but it’s covered and Smith dives forward for a few yards.
Blame: Harbaugh/Roman (terrible call — that play only works in college)

Fourth Quarter

1st and 10; 14:27; Dallas 46
2-yard gain for Gore on a run over left tackle. Looks like the play might have been meant to go to the right (and the blocks were there), but Gore doesn’t have the speed anymore to break anything to the outside.
Blame: Group

2nd and 13; 12:50; Dallas 49
Spencer again comes around the edge unblocked to get Gore from behind. No gain.
Blame: Gore (who’s looking tired at this point)

49ers kick field goal. Noticeable head shake by Walker when Harbaugh tells the official that they’ll take the field goal instead of the 15-yard leverage penalty on Dallas.

1st and 10; 6:12; SF 33
Run off left tackle for Gore, who falls forward for a couple yards. Not a real big hold opened up, but Gore looks exhausted.
Blame: Harbaugh/Roman (Gore needs a break)

2nd and 8; 5:33; SF 35
Cowboys send six guys after Smith. Ware rushes around the right end and isn’t even touched. Easy sack for Ware (8-yard loss). Anthony Davis was busy blocking Coleman on the play. 49ers caught off-guard by the blitz, but there’s no excuse for leaving Ware unblocked.
Blame: A. Davis (but Smith probably should have audibled — have to figure he knows the protection well enough to know Ware was going to be unblocked)


2nd and 3; 14:00; SF 39
Goodwin is pushed backward by Ratliff, who then swims by Goodwin and sacks Smith for a 9-yard loss. Ware fakes a rush and then covers Gore, taking away Smith’s only option once Ratliff’s in pursuit.
Blame: Goodwin


The line didn’t have a very good game, and you can’t point blame at just one or two guys.

First, the Cowboys have some talent on their front seven. Ware is incredible, and Spencer, Coleman, Hatcher and Brent wreaked havoc all day. The Cowboys’ middle linebackers, particularly Lee, were solid in stopping the run as well. Ball had a great game in the secondary.

However, the line had plenty of missed assignments in pass protection and oftentimes were pushed backward when trying to run-block. Staley was overmatched by Ware all day. Goodwin was beaten constantly; the most damaging on the sack by Ratliff in overtime. Rachal was benched for a stretch, but after a horrible start didn’t play so badly in the second half. The performances from Iupati and Anthony Davis were probably the least of the line’s problems, although neither one exactly stood out.

Other issues include:

Alex Smith: perhaps it was the constant pressure Smith faced, but he looked skittish as the game went on. However, my first impression (that Smith held onto the ball too long) was a bit faulty. Most of the Cowboys’ sacks were unavoidable on Smith’s end.

Frank Gore: the 49ers need a back who can take it around the outside, where opportunities existed on some of Gore’s short runs up the middle. Not many holes were opened up for Gore, but often he dove forward to make sure the 49ers didn’t lose yardage. As the game wore on Gore looked really tired. Looks like Gore’s explosiveness might not be gone, but it’s definitely fading. Time to start divvying up the carries a little bit among Kendall Hunter and Anthony Dixon. One bright spot: Gore’s as skilled as ever when it comes to picking up blitzes.

Vernon Davis/Delanie Walker: These guys are athletic, talented guys in the open field, but they were pretty ineffective as blockers against the Cowboys. The Niners need to get a blocking tight end so they can be moved out wide or at least to the slot more often; especially with injuries to Michael Crabtree and Braylon Edwards taking away their best two receiving options. With Norris looking ineffective at times (not ALL the time, but he had his mistakes), it might be time to look at playing Bruce Miller as a combination FB/TE.

Harbaugh talked a lot about angles this week, and you could see what he was talking about. On more than a few of Gore’s runs that went for 3 yards or less, the blocking seemed adequate but there just wasn’t a discernible hole. Anthony Davis in particular could’ve opened up a running lane for Gore a few times if he had blocked his man more to the outside without allowing him to come to the middle. For Davis and Iupati, and maybe even Rachal, I think good coaching and some time with this new offense could lead them to become productive offensive linemen.

Staley and Goodwin? Yikes. If they don’t improve as the season goes on the 49ers are going to have to look at other options at left tackle and center.

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