They say you win football games in the trenches — San Francisco has proven that old adage this season.
The 49ers general manager Trent Baalke has built his football team the right way, focusing on the offensive and defensive lines first, then building around those pieces. His defensive line was the best in football last year, and this year the offensive line has followed suit.
In the 2010 draft, Baalke’s first in charge of player personnel, the 49ers spent two first round picks — No. 11 and No. 17 overall — on the offensive line. They took left tackle Anthony Davis out of Rutgers and left guard Mike Iupati out of Idaho. Right tackle Joe Staley has been with the team since being drafted in the first round in 2007. Center Jonathan Goodwin was signed as a free agent last year after starting for the Saints for three years and right guard Alex Boone was a tremendous find as an undrafted free agent in 2009.
Those five players have done an excellent job at giving Alex Smith time to throw. They’ve allowed just 57 total pressures on the season according to Pro Football Focus — good for fourth best in the NFL. Sometimes Smith doesn’t help himself out much in the pocket, waiting too long to throw, but his offensive line is a chief reason for his success in the last two seasons. Head coach Jim Harbaugh has done a great job building an offense around his skill set, but his offensive line deserves just as many accolades for their protection.
The 49ers also lead the NFL in rushing despite a lack of elite players at running back. Frank Gore and Anthony Dixon have each increased their average yards per carry by over a yard compared to last season, and backup Kendall Hunter has increased his from 4.2 as a rookie in 2011 to 5.0 this season. The 49ers are averaging a league-best 5.6 yards per carry and 168.6 yards per game. Gore has had a solid career in the NFL, but at 29-years-old, his production was expected to drop. Instead he’s seen a new life this year — once again, thanks to his offensive line.
A lot of credit goes out to Harbaugh and co-offensive line coaches Tim Drevno and Mike Solari. Davis and Iupati have seen exceptional development in their young careers while Goodwin and Staley are playing at a higher level than they’ve ever seen during their careers. Boone went undrafted out of college, but he’s been the sixth best guard in the NFL this season according to Pro Football Focus.
The 49ers may not have the undefeated record that the Atlanta Falcons do, or the recent Super Bowl victories that the Giants have, but with the best offensive line in football, they must be taken seriously. Last year, their defense stood heads and shoulders above their offense. This year, the offense has caught up, the 49ers could still be playing in February.
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