Mailbag: What’s up with 49ers O-line? Is help coming?

SANTA CLARA It turns out 2020 has been a very different season for the 49ers

It turns out 2020 has been a very different season for the 49ers than 2019. The team that went undefeated through last September and October finds itself at 2-2 following its second straight home loss Sunday night to the Eagles.

Is the sky falling? I don’t think so (but in 2020 anything is possible).

Let’s open back up the mailbag to answer questions about the red and gold through the season’s first month.

Jess asks: Hi Chris. What is the probability that Jimmy G, Heem and Sherm play this week?

Coach Kyle Shanahan on Monday said he hoped those guys would practice this week, but he didn’t sound overly optimistic about their chances for Sunday.

When asked about the quarterbacks and if he’s consider giving C.J. Beathard a shot at the No. 2 job, Shanahan pointed to the starting spot and said, “I’m still not sure about Jimmy,” in terms of his plans for this week. So things sound fluid.

On Raheem Mostert: “We’ll see on Wednesday. I’m not real optimistic, but I know he does have a chance Wednesday,” Shanahan said, noting his chances at returning to practice increase each day as the week goes on. Still, I’d imagine the 49ers will be cautious with Mostert given he’s had knee issues before.

The same is true for Sherman. Shanahan said he the medical staff expected his calf ailment from the opener to be a four-week injury, which would make it more likely he returns for next week’s pivotal NFC West game against the Rams. No matter what the team or Sherman says, calf injuries are directly related to the Achilles (I’m not a doctor, but the muscle and tendon are attached) and Sherman had procedures on both Achilles following his tear in 2017.

“I’m kind of expecting for him, hoping for him next week, but it’d be a good surprise to get him this week. Talking to Sherm, there’s always a chance, but we’re going to have to wait and see how he is on Wednesday,” he said.

As is true every week, we’ll have a much better idea on Wednesday when we see who practices. Unless it’s a pivotal game, the 49ers don’t often put injured players back on the field without practicing for a full week, at least. So I’d expect them to take it slowly with those guys, even though they need a win over the Dolphins to get back over .500.

In an ideal world, I’d think Shanahan would want to rest those guys to give everyone a shot at being healthy for the toughest stretch of the schedule coming up after the Dolphins game when the 49ers host the Rams (3-1) travel to New England (2-2), Seattle (4-0) and host Green Bay (4-0) on Thursday night to open Week 9.

J. Chong asks: Is there a reason why the 49ers are so injured? How does the amount of injuries rank historically? Does the medical/ ports medicine department need a revamp?

It’s a valid question, but the 49ers are hardly alone when it comes to injuries. The Eagles, for example, practiced with one receiver on their active roster last week and were down their first- and second-string left tackles in Sunday’s night’s game, and right tackle Lane Johnson also exited in the first half.

The Broncos are without Von Miller, the Giants lost Saquon Barkley and the list goes on.

So, yes, while losing Nick Bosa, Solomon Thomas, Dee Ford and everyone else hurts, San Francisco is not going to get sympathy from the rest of the league.

I don’t think the 49ers need to revamp their medical staff, which they did before last season. Keep in my mind, they had pretty bad injury luck a year ago. The difference being they didn’t lose core players to season-ending injuries so early in the year. The medical staff managed injuries to Joe Staley, Mike McGlinchey, Kyle Juszczyk, George Kittle and others pretty well during that run.

I’d argue the bigger issue was the pandemic, which costs teams their entire offseason programs and forced a shorter training camp, which led to higher intensity practices over the summer. And unlike the 2011 lockout, which also had no official offseason, players couldn’t go work out in public gyms.

Steve asks: I’ve heard center is QB of the O-line. Is missing Richburg impacting us more than we think?

I think so. A telling exercise is always following the money.

Ben Garland, their backup center, is playing on a one-year, $2 million contract. Richburg signed a $47.5 million deal over five years back in 2018, which made him one of the highest-paid centers in the league. They liked his work in pass protection and his athleticism to block in space on their outside runs.

Richburg not being available could be impacting the team’s thinking at right guard also. A case could be made Garland would be an upgrade over Daniel Brunskill given his slow start to the year. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Colton McKivitz get some consideration if Brunskill doesn’t turn things around soon.

There’s no doubt the offensive line has been a glaring weak point of the offense this season, which is somewhat surprising considering how much the team believed it would be a strength after mauling the Vikings and Packers with the running game during last season’s playoffs.

Niv asks: Calmly asking: What should be the expectations for the remainder of the season?

The good news for the 49ers, despite all their injuries, is the expanded playoff field. With seven postseason teams in each conference now, over six in the previous format, teams hovering around 8-8 and 9-7 will be in the mix until the very end. The Rams would have made it under this format last year at 9-7. I still think the 49ers can turn things around if they keep their core players healthy.

The offensive line will have to play much better, both in pass protection and the running game (running backs have averaged 2.7 yards per carry the last two weeks). The secondary will have to get healthy and Jimmy Garoppolo will have to be even better than the second half of last season. I think it’s possible.

If we’ve learned anything about Shanahan’s teams the last three years, they tend to play much better in the second half of the season than the first.

Shane asks: What do you think the chances are they give Clay Mathews a call? Why haven’t they brought him in for a workout?

I think it’s a stylistic thing. You’ll notice most of San Francisco’s defensive ends are big, powerful guys that hover in the 275-pound range. Matthews is more of a hybrid/outside linebacker type. Dee Ford is really unique to San Francisco because he’s the only true speed rusher on the roster.

Kerry Hyder and Ezekiel Ansah are both 275. Dion Jordan is listed at 284, Kentavius Street: 287. Matthews, per Google, is 255.

However, given how difficult it can be to find pass rushers, perhaps the 49ers give Matthews a call. He did have 8.0 sacks last season, his most since 2014.

Kim asks: Greetings from Denmark. Is there a simple explanation for the poor O-line play? This is actually my biggest concern on the team because everything else can to some extent be explained by the injuries…..

Hej! Thank you for following along.

There is no simple explanation. Richburg’s absence certainly hurts. Brunskill’s struggles could be related to the fact he played tackle for most of last season, where he also played in the AAF before joining the 49ers. He’s also a former undrafted free agent, which often means there’s a relatively low ceiling when it comes to overall talent.

Trent Williams has allowed as many sacks (three) and his last three seasons combined. Two came against the Eagles in a startling performance after Williams looked like San Francisco’s best player throughout training camp, even against Bosa. I’d expect him to bounce back this week. One bad game, after not playing in 2019, should be considered a blip. Multiple bad games would be a trend.

McGlinchey’s play is the most puzzling. He was excellent during the stretch run last season and has not picked up where he left off. I don’t believe it’s time to panic. I think the COVID offseason impacted offensive lines throughout the league given the lack of practice time and how physicality has generally been phased out of practice.

However, if the offensive line doesn’t pick things up in soon, big changes could be coming to that unit this offseason.

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