The 49ers take one of the NFL's top offenses into their Week 13 showdown against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday.
Quarterback Brock Purdy and running back Christian McCaffrey are considered top-10 MVP candidates. Tight end George Kittle is among the best in the business at his job. Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel comprise one of the top receiving tandems in the NFL.
And the 49ers’ offensive line typically is referenced as Trent Williams and four others.
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Those guys who fill the positions on the offensive line must be doing something right, too.
The 49ers rank third in the NFL at 386.1 total yards per game, and they're tied with the Eagles for third with a 28.2-point average.
“We play our role in the offense’s success,” 49ers center Jake Brendel told NBC Sports Bay Area. “That doesn’t hit the headlines as much as some other things. But that’s fine. That’s just offensive line play.”
The game Sunday features the top two teams in the NFC. Both teams have rosters with vast amounts of star power. And when it comes to the play at the line of scrimmage, the 49ers’ offensive line is the one unit widely considered not like the others.
San Francisco 49ers
Philadelphia has built loaded offensive and defensive lines. The 49ers have invested tons into their defensive line, including the trade-deadline acquisition of edge rusher Chase Young.
But the 49ers’ offensive line — other than Williams — is largely an under-the-radar group that even close followers of the NFL would have a difficult time identifying.
“For sure,” 49ers right tackle Colton McKivitz said. “They have a great group, a lot of big names.”
McKivitz singled out the multiple All-Pro selections of center Jason Kelce and right tackle Lane Johnson. The Eagles’ left side of their line also is stout with tackle Jordan Mailata and guard Landon Dickerson.
“But our group is Trent and a couple guys meshed together,” McKivitz said. “I think we’ve had a couple of prime-time games where we’ve gotten to show a little bit of what we can do. This is just another step in that.”
This is not just another step, this is a huge step.
The reason is because the assignment might not get any more difficult for the 49ers’ offensive line this season.
The Eagles are looking at this as a matchup to exploit. But if the 49ers’ line can provide Purdy with time and open holes for McCaffrey, a victory and more respect for the unheralded unit are sure to follow.
Philadelphia features one of the top defensive lines in football to challenge every member of the 49ers’ offensive line. Moreover, playing in the Eagles’ loud home stadium of Lincoln Financial Field is no easy assignment, either.
McKivitz primarily will be up against edge rusher Haason Reddick, who leads the Eagles with 8.5 sacks after registering 16 sacks a year ago.
Reddick blew up the 49ers’ hopes of a win in the NFC Championship Game in January when he turned the corner against then-49ers tight end Tyler Kroft and hit Purdy’s arm as he was throwing. Purdy sustained a torn elbow ligament and underwent significant offseason surgery.
“It is going to be a great challenge for me,” McKivitz said. “Haason does a lot of great stuff with his outside arm, so I can’t be leaning on it. He also has the ability to turn the edge and come inside. It’s going to be a great test, so I’m sure a lot of people are worried about it.
“But, yeah, it’s going to be a fun challenge.”
McKivitz has gone up against a top pass-rusher nearly every game this season, beginning with the Week 1 assignment of Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt. McKivitz was beaten for three sacks in his first start after replacing Mike McGlinchey, who signed a lucrative contract with the Denver Broncos in free agency.
Since then, McKivitz has surrendered two sacks and two quarterback hits in 10 games, according to Pro Football Focus.
After the rough beginning, McKivitz’s play has quieted the external criticism.
“I’m pretty hard on myself, but overall, the product has gotten better,” he said. “I’m happy with that, but also I know I can get a lot better to get to where I want to be at in this league. Consistency is the key.”
And McKivitz-Reddick is only the beginning of the challenges the 49ers face along the line of scrimmage.
The Eagles also feature quality edge rushers Josh Sweat and veteran Brandon Graham, along with powerful young linemen Jordan Davis and Jalen Carter. Veteran Fletcher Cox is listed as questionable with a groin injury.
Williams likely will line up primarily against Sweat in one-on-one situations. Left guard Aaron Banks, Brendel and a combination of Spencer Burford and Jon Feliciano will be tasked to open holes in the run game and hold up in pass protection against the Eagles’ powerful defensive tackles.
The 49ers’ offensive line gets a lot more criticism than credit outside the building. And even offensive line coach Chris Foerster considers the group a work in progress.
“We've been OK,” Foerster said. “We're productive. The offense has been productive in running the ball and protection wise. But there's just so many things we can do better. We're just not there, yet.
“Each individual's getting a little bit better every week. That's the thing I did notice over the bye week, and it's continued these last three weeks since the bye.”
Other than Williams, the 49ers’ offensive line does not receive favorable individual grades from PFF. Brendel said he believes that is more of a function of the complex and unique blocking techniques the 49ers deploy. After all, the 49ers’ outside zone blocking scheme still is not widely implemented around the NFL, so it’s virtually impossible for an outsider to identify the assignments for a particular lineman on any given play.
“Our style of offensive line play is not pretty — it’s not flashy,” Brendel said. “We know how big of a role we take in all of this. And we’re definitely proud of what we’ve done so far, and we have to keep that rolling.”