Article Title: From Center to Left.
The Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle in Rocky Bernard blasted through a porous offensive line early last season (2007), and planted San Francisco 49er quarterback Alex Smith so far into the ground via his crushed shoulder that it illustrated a pure lack of communication and cohesiveness on this offensive line that is still in existence today.
Alex would eventually miss the rest of that (2007), season and allegations would fly concerning his durability and toughness to play through injury. Meanwhile the real culprits that allowed a record breaking number of sacks that season, stand before us reshuffled and ready to stand in for another chance.
49er center Eric Heitmann is the grand maestro of the offensive line and recipient of two Bobb McKittrick awards, which are the pinnacle highlights to an offensive lineman playing on a team that is cemented in proud tradition for producing some of the best offensive lines within the NFL today. Bobb was the absolute best as an offensive line coach that had a particular knack for smaller offensive linemen that were oblivious under the radar to other teams.
He was able to take late round draft pick linemen and even rookie un-drafted free agents to all new heights within the development stages of their NFL careers. He was famous for his gap runs, where his linemen had specific assigned men to block. He used angles, and a set system of traps, counters and sweeps to alleviate his lineís lack of size. Yet when you look at the most successful offensive lines in the NFL over the long term the teamís that had smaller lines in girth and size had the best offensive statistics and overall playoff success.
Mr. Heitmann took over for the beloved Jeremy Newberry due to chronic injuries that hampered his knees and thus encouraged the management to make the inevitable conclusion that younger was better. Eric learned a great deal of what he knows today from Jeremy Newberry who in my opinion was a class act as an NFL center who displayed tremendous courage and ability to play through a game while in immense pain.
Heitmann is in his seventh year out of Stanford, and has won the respect he deserves from a line littered with different personalities. He played every snap as the starting center in (2007), and was also an Ed Block Courage award recipient after a spectacular return from a broken leg he suffered late in the (2006), NFL season.
As the center one must carry a leadership role each and every play that is planned and executed out on the field and a voice within the locker room as well. Any lineman that has a question about anything or wants to raise something with the staff itself goes through Heitmann to get there. However despite an improved line back in 2005 and 2006, the line that appeared in 2007 was mostly just a mirror of its true self.
Some would point to the offensive line coach in George Warhop and wonder why he was retained for 2008 considering that every conceivable offensive statistic that was in writing for that season was ranked dead last. Some would point at rookie offensive coordinator Jim Hostler and say he had a substantial part in creating a turn off the television ďIíve had enough of this type controversy.Ē
Still some would point at Mike Nolan himself because he was predictable out on the field and was not a risk-taker so to speak. Others point out that internal changes should have taken place on the line as far as reshuffling things a bit. And some would blame the center himself in Mr. Heitmann for not quite being himself after his broken leg injury late in the 2006 season.
Yielding a league high 55 sacks in one season is a sickening reality call we donít ever want to see again. The line was easily manipulated when it came to the blitz, which in some degree or another falls as a responsibility to the center; they are the ones that make most of the line calls. He was also seen to play a bit tentatively last season as he was pushed back on well synchronized bull rushes.
Does Mr. Heitmann lack confidence in himself? Was he the same player prior to his injury in 2006? He has readily admitted he was not the same person as indicated in our statistical data from that season. He wants to make amends and put that behind him as he looks at 2008. Mike Martz will allow Mr. Heitmann even more autonomy in making line calls as his offensive system demands it.
Competition was acquired via the draft this season in fourth-round choice Cody Wallace. He will push gently on the back of Eric to let him know he is there, but he is far enough away considering he has been virtually manhandled on the majority of snaps he has taken thus far in training camp. Codyís blocking though is coming along and is technically sound and as an undersized player he has begun to understand how to use his leverage to his advantage. Toughness and being stout at the point of attack will come with more playing time and exposure.
All in all the lineís state of mind is the responsibility of Eric Heitmann. He must have a finger on it at all times and needs to up the fever pitch for solidarity with so many changes at the positions of right and left tackle. Jonas Jennings has aired his disapproval of being moved from the left to the right and seems a bit embarrassed so to speak in that he is almost looking at this change with second-year player Joe Staley as a demotion of sorts.
But here are some facts we all know. He was drafted back in 2006 to be the eventual starting left tackle based on his first round pick status and his success back in Central Michigan. The timetable thus had already been set. Jonas Jennings durability has been a tremendous negative to the lineís ability to maintain continuity and consistency. If there is anyone that must be a stable force on the line from one game to the next it has to be the left tackle that protects the blindside of the quarterback and takes on some of the best pure pass rushers in the NFL on any given Sunday.
Considering the amount of money we dedicated to Jennings and the very fact that he has missed parts of 32 of his 48 games due to injury as a 49er makes one think, moving Staley to left tackle is a no-brainer after all. $36 million dollars should buy you a competent and reliable starter on the left side of your line no doubt about it. It hadnít so top management suggested this move with Joe Staley take place sooner rather than later.
Joe Staley is the first offensive lineman in this franchises 62-year history ever to start all 16 games in his rookie season. In fact he played as well if not better than all his counterparts on this line, and was in many an opinion the best lineman within the line in all of 2007.
Joe was sidelined for a bit as training camp got underway with a foot infection that was thought to be a bug bite. His right foot swelled to epic proportions that he couldnít even put any kind of weight on it let alone move any of his toes. He had cut his foot earlier while walking on the beach on Lake Michigan two weeks earlier which involved a stick. He was forced to make two hospital trips the last an overnight stay at Stanford Hospital to help kill the nasty infection.
Now he is being counted on to be an unmovable force on the left side of the line that requires him to have two healthy feet with great leverage ability. He is now doing that and we can all have fun watching his transition as the pre-season is already underway. Joe takes his place next to another dedicated and reliable veteran in Adam Snyder at left guard where the mammoth All-Pro Larry Allen held this position and retired from the game along from the 49ers.
The big strapping Adam Snyder out of Oregon has been the perfect bandage when the line has experienced personnel bleeding due to injuries. In fact he started 11 games last season at left tackle because Jonas Jennings was again out due to the injury bug or should I say a hangnail or something? Now he stands in at left guard a position he may be able to call his home once and for all.
When Larry Allen was at this position at left guard he had a knack for assisting the line in pulling from one side to the other, it will now be up to Adam Snyder to take over that role with a featured backfield now of Frank Gore and DeShaun Foster. Snyder has a combined 23 starts at both right and left tackle under his belt and has been a nomad of sorts in that he really hasnít settled down with anything permanent as far as a real position yet.
If anyone can help Staley settle into the left tackle position it will be Adam Snyder standing right beside him having had experience there previously already. I believe both will compliment each other immensely as the season progresses and we have the distinct ability to produce one of the best left sides in the NFL despite the loss of perennial Pro Bowler Larry Allen and Jonas Jennings moving over to the right tackle position.
Again anything that is an improvement up and over what happened in 2007 will be welcomed. We are now with two offensive line coaches in George Warhop and Chris Forester. One will settle in on running aspects of the line in relation to the rushing attack and the other will use their expertise on improving pass protection that is a precious commodity the 49ers have been too long without.
I have a great passion for the offensive line because they are the virtual centerpiece of the team in relation to the quarterback. Everything must be started by them and everything must go through them. Having one anotherís back starts and ends with the offensive line. Chilo Rachel out of (USC) and Cody Wallace out of (Texas A&M) have been drafted to become the next great partakers of a line destined for greatness again. Free agent pick-up veteran Barry Sims also offers great insurance to the tackle position whether it be right tackle and or left tackle Sims has the experience and muscle to handle either situation should an injury rear its ugly head.
Finally as we cross out our first pre-season loss 18-6 against the Oakland Raiders, questions still abound rather than answers to the overall offensive philosophy and the Mike Martz offense. We obviously donít have an easy road lying ahead of us at really any juncture until we see pure execution on the field and a bit more risk taking. The collective effort to find improvement and to become more versatile and respected as a true offense must come from oneís head and heart, until that happens success will always be averted.
Sources of Information: Mercury News.com, SF Gate.com, Inside Bay Area.com, NFL.com and my own personal analysis and opinion.