By: Matthew Harrington
If Sunday’s 13-10 loss to the St. Louis Rams is any indicator, the offensive line for the San Francisco 49ers’ condition has been upgraded from a minor concern to a major issue. The 49ers can cross off any playoff aspirations if quarterback Colin Kaepernick continues to receive the “protection” he received Sunday afternoon at Levi’s Stadium.
How bad was the offensive line in week 9? The lowly Rams, entering play yesterday on pace for one sack per game (seven sacks, in seven games), doubled their season total in one game. That’s right, one of the worst teams at getting to the quarterback put Kaepernick into the turf behind the line of scrimmage seven times Sunday. When he did remain vertical, Kaepernick was still being pestered by oncoming pass-rushers, never able to get into an offensive rhythm. He managed 237 yards, connecting with Anquan Boldin for the 49ers only trip into the endzone.
When the Denver Broncos stuffed Kaepernick six times in their 42-17 week 7 dismantling of the Niners, much of the offensive line’s short-comings could be waved away. The Broncos, after all, are a top-ten defensive unit, ranking seventh in the league in sacks with 24. The Orange Crush was bolstered by Von Miller (9 sacks) and DeMarcus Ware (8), two of the top five sack-producers in the NFL. Making matters worse in that game, San Francisco lost fourth-year center Daniel Kilgore with a leg injury in the third quarter. In some ways, limiting the Broncos to six sacks in that game could be seen as a positive. At the very worst, the Niners had the bye week upcoming to iron out kinks and get new starting center, rookie Marcus Martin up to speed and clicking with Kaepernick.
Fast forward two Sundays ahead and see a line so bad that, with his team trailing 13-10, coach Jim Harbaugh elected to go with a passing play on a critical first-and-goal on the one yard line instead of punching the ball in on a Frank Gore or Bruce Miller run. With everyone expecting a run, the 49ers front corps still failed to protect the quarterback, with the Rams flushing Kaerpernick out of the pocket, rushing the throw in the process. On the next play, Kaepernick went for a keeper to sneak into the endzone, but instead (supposedly) fumbled the ball away. The Rams escaped the scrum with possession of the ball with precious few seconds left on the clock, a small enough window to all but assure a win for the visitors. The series cost the 49ers the ball, and ultimately the game, after their shot at a game-tying field goal disappeared.
If Harbaugh was reluctant to run the ball Sunday, he had good reason. Despite boasting veteran Pro-Bowl running back Frank Gore in tandem with the dynamic Carlos Hyde, the 49ers own only one more rushing touchdown (3 total) than the last-ranked Oakland Raiders. San Francisco ranks in the bottom half of the league in yards per attempt on the rush. The Niners collected 80 rushing yards total Sunday.
The loss to division foe St. Louis puts the 49ers at .500, one game back of Seattle for the final NFC playoff spot and well behind division-leading Arizona (7-1). If the Niners expect to be a playoff team, they’ll need to gain ground fast, figuring out the deficiencies up front on the fly.
The next two weeks will prove whether postseason hopes would prove prudent our not for the 49er faithful. Next Sunday, the 49ers go head-to-head with the New Orleans Saints, owners of the 19th most sacks in the NFL along with the Cleveland Browns. After that, it’s onto the Big Apple for a match-up against the New York Giants. The G-men rank 24th in the league with 13 sacks per game. If Kaepernick finds himself looking up at the Superdome ceiling or New York skyline too many times in the next fortnight, San Francisco’s disappointing season could turn dismal.
Cover Image: By Mike Morbeck (originally posted to Flickr as Troy Smith) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons