49ers turn­around needs to start up front

The urgency among the struggling San Francisco 49ers team is palpable in the locker room.

It can be seen in solemn looks stained on players’ faces after losses that seem to come in bunches.

It is evident in the tone of QB Colin Kaepernick and head coach Jim Harbaugh, whose abrupt answers stem not from discourteousness, but because they have no answers.

Despite a pair of disheartening losses — a blowout to the Broncos and a last-second failure to a depleted Rams team — 49ers players refuse to accept defeat.

RB Frank Gore said this week matter-of-factly that the 49ers will make the playoffs, and he’s not alone in his resolve.

The 49ers stand at a 4-4 heading into a tough road game against the New Orleans Saints and Drew Brees Sunday who, despite a 4-4 record of their own, pose a stiff challenge for a team lacking an offensive identity.

San Francisco has only made the playoffs once in the past 12 years while losing more than five games in a season, doing so in 2002 after posting a 10-6 record to take first place in the NFC West.

But in 2002 the 49ers didn’t share a division with the current Super Bowl champions in the Seattle Seahawks, or a 7-1 Arizona Cardinals squad, who sit atop the NFC West.

A slew of defensive reinforcements will arrive sooner rather than later, with the much-anticipated return of OLB Aldon Smith inching nearer every day, LB NaVarro Bowman making key strides, literally, in the rehabilitation of his injured knee. DL Glenn Dorsey could possibly return in time for Sunday’s matchup.

But the defense isn’t really the problem with this 49ers. Despite being decimated by injuries and absences, the respectably 10th-ranked defense has kept San Francisco afloat through a frustrating season.

They couldn’t keep Peyton Manning out of the end zone, and rookie Jimmie Ward received a rude NFL welcome at the hands of Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall, to name a few mishaps. But the 49ers defense has given up the second-fewest yards through eight games, sitting only behind the Detroit Lions.

The real problem lies with the 49ers’ 24th-ranked offense, and more specifically, the offensive line. Once a strong point of a smash-mouth football team, the front five has become an achilles heel, disrupting plans to employ their new passing weapons while disallowing Frank Gore from chewing up much-needed yardage on first down.

Gore has shown that even at 31 he has more than enough left to be a premium threat in the running game. But neither he nor backup Carlos Hyde have been allotted much room to get things going.

Gore has had two 100-yard games this year, but Harbaugh’s lack of faith in the run game could be seen during last week’s goal line mishap against St. Louis. The veteran back failed to receive a single goal line touch, even with the 49ers having a timeout to burn.

Only the Oakland Raiders have rushed for fewer touchdowns on the year, with just two.

The inability to get the run going has prompted Kaepernick to pass more, which has led to the young quarterback being sacked an astounding 9.2-percent of the time when he drops back to pass, second only behind the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars.

Veteran T Joe Staley‘s frustrations boiled over at the end of last week’s game, when he delivered a refreshingly honest assessment of the state of the 49ers offense:

“We got all the talent in the world. We’re doing some dumb stuff and they took advantage of it … Penalties, dumb blocks, dumb techniques, dumb schemes, played like shit.”

Staley clarified his position this week, offering a less profane take on the O-line’s struggles:

“We had a lot of opportunities in that game to make plays and we just didn’t do it for whatever reason. We have to do a better job of executing what we can control. As an offensive line, we have to do a better job of protecting the quarterback. When we get the run calls, make them work. Everybody’s got to be on the same page at all times.”

So how does this unit turn it around? Offensive coordinator Greg Roman, in a hot seat more than ever with both fans and media, stated the obvious for a team hoping to turn the corner:

“I’d say in a nutshell, we’ve got to improve. We come in every day, we’ve got professional athletes, professional coaches working very hard to get that done. We feel like we’ve let some things slip in games where a little mistake here or there, a circumstance here or there. But, guys are working extremely hard to get it right and that’s what we aim to do.”

If San Francisco wants to remain in the hunt for a postseason berth, the offensive line rise far above their play in the first half. Sunday’s game in New Orleans is more than just one out of 16, it’s perhaps the most important game of the year. And so is next week’s against the New York Giants, and so on.


Follow @SFBay and @ShawnWhelchel on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of the San Francisco 49ers.