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49ers focusing on offensive line improvement during training camp

9:51 AM, Jul 30, 2012   |    comments
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith (11) throws the ball during organized team activities at the San Francisco 49ers training facility. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-US PRESSWIRE
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SAN FRANCISCO - The San Francisco 49ers know they have to improve their pass protection

So here's the 49ers' dirty little secret. They don't pass protect well, even though their starting left tackle, Joe Staley, went to his first Pro Bowl last year. Yet Staley's exploits obscures the fact that the team gave up 44 sacks last year.

Only five other teams gave up more sacks, and none of them had winning records.

What's more is the current regime doesn't seem to care about rectifying this problem. If they did, they would have had no interest in huge 33-year-old guard Leonard Davis. The rest of the league ignored Davis, the former Pro Bowler, who spent last season with the Lions but never played.

Yet one day before the start of training camp, the 49ers signed the 375-pound Davis in the hopes he'd compete with Alex Boone for the opening at right guard.

Typically the first thing that goes for aging offensive linemen is their ability to pass protect. The skill requires light feet and the flexibility to sink into a proper pass-protecting stance. The 49ers found that out when they signed Larry Allen in 2006. Allen was still an excellent road-grading run blocker, but he often whiffed in pass protection.

Davis might be the same way. He went to Pro Bowls with the Cowboys on the strength of his style of run blocking, but he was never a great pass protector.

The team appears to be relying on former Cowboys offensive line coach Hudson Houck's philosophy. Houck often assembled huge lines during Dallas' Super Bowl winning days in the 1990's. He believed big linemen can make mistakes in pass protection and get away with it because their collective girth forms a wall that is hard to penetrate.

The 49ers might also be taking the tack that a powerful and intimidating running game could open up passing with the play-action fake. But that didn't exactly work last year. Play-action often entails only allowing two or three receivers out into the route, while everyone else blocks in what's called a max-protection scheme.

The 49ers went from 26th in using max protection to ninth last year and yet they still ranked 23rd in sacks per pass play. The team was 29th in passing yards and struggled mightily on third down and in the red zone.

Having quarterback Alex Smith constantly getting smeared is also problematic. The fiercest battle in training camp will be the three-headed fight for the two spots right behind Smith between Colin Kaepernick, Josh Johnson and Scott Tolzien.

However, Johnson leads the pack with four NFL starts, Kaepernick is second with five NFL passes attempted and Tolzien has yet to throw a pass in an NFL game. All three also proved to be inconsistent during the offseason program and were way behind Smith in terms of consistency.

The team's obsession with brawn and girth could help their run game and make them an intimidating presence. But how effective can they be, if they can't keep their starting quarterback healthy?

USA Today

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