49ers offensive line a surprising strength, not a liability

Spencer Burford #74, Jake Brendel #64, Aaron Banks #65 and Trent Williams #71 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)
Spencer Burford #74, Jake Brendel #64, Aaron Banks #65 and Trent Williams #71 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images) /

Entering 2022, there were reasonable concerns the 49ers offensive line would be a massive problem, but both the stats and metrics suggest otherwise.

Let’s rewind to the conclusion of the 2022 preseason when the San Francisco 49ers were getting ready to formulate their final 53-man roster ahead of Week 1.

Niner Noise wasn’t alone in thinking the offensive line could be a major problem for head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense. After all, this unit watched Pro Bowl left guard Laken Tomlinson depart via free agency, then saw Pro Bowl center Alex Mack retire suddenly prior to training camp.

That led to three new starters on the interior: the second-year pro Aaron Banks at left guard, journeyman backup center Jake Brendel and then rookie right guard Spencer Burford, who won the starting job over the veteran, Daniel Brunskill.

With a full six weeks now in the books, the Niners’ O-line hasn’t been that big of a liability, and both the stats and metrics back it up.

More on that in a second, but what’s outstanding to note is San Francisco’s O-line has had to absorb two key injuries already: right tackle Mike McGlinchey suffering a calf injury in Week 6 and All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams suffering a high-ankle sprain way back in Week 3 and missing every game up to that point.

While the 49ers obviously want to have both of them back and healthy, they’ve also gotten by with backups and haven’t suffered too drastic a drop in efficiency.

49ers offensive line has been excellent in pass protection

Banks, Brendel and Burford all came with their own notable questions entering 2022. Banks, the 2021 second-round NFL Draft pick, saw only five regular-season snaps his rookie year, while Brendel had just three regular-season starts dating back to 2016.

Burford being a rookie needed no introduction to worries.

Those three have been far from perfect, and Brendel isn’t a long-term option at center. However, as a whole and inclusive of the many backups whom the Niners have had to infuse thus far, the O-line has actually shined in pass protection.

Through six weeks, San Francisco has surrendered only nine sacks, which is tied for third fewest in the NFL. Additionally, the 49ers’ sack-percentage rate is 4.8, which is a respectable 10th best.

Going over to the metrics and looking at Football Outsiders’ DVOA, this particular group ranks 10th in pass protection, too, with an adjusted sack rate of 5.9 percent.

49ers O-line still needs improvement in run blocking

It’s something of a shock to see the Niners performing so well in pass protection this year. However, and perhaps somewhat uncharacteristically for a Shanahan run-first system, the O-line hasn’t been good in run support.

To date, San Francisco is averaging 4.4 yards per rush, which is a solid 13th best in the NFL, yet Football Outsiders’ DVOA has this group ranked 24th with an adjusted line-yards rate of 4.15. And while Pro Football Focus’ Week 7 O-line power rankings recognized how well the 49ers have performed in pass protection, the lack of run-blocking prowess unquestionably influenced their decision to place the Niners 13th overall:

"There’s a chance Trent Williams returns this week, which would be huge for the team. Jaylon Moore allowed three pressures against Atlanta and was solid, but he’s no Trent Williams.This has been a better pass-protecting than run-blocking line, with no single lineman allowing more than eight pressures on the season."

Read More: Pro Football Focus doesn’t think 49ers O-line is in dire shape

That’ll remain a cause for concern, of course, as Shanahan would love nothing more than to get his offense back into a context of where the ground game is driving everything. To date, it hasn’t always been effective, and inconsistencies have certainly influenced San Francisco’s 3-3 start and subsequently prompted the team to trade for Carolina Panthers All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey.

However, given the question marks that many had about the 49ers’ O-line being a problem, the first six weeks have suggested quite the opposite.

Next. Ranking 49ers' 10 best teams in franchise history. dark