Jim Harbaugh may have been a quarterback in college and the NFL, but he hasn’t always viewed the game from a quarterback’s perspective.
As the son of a successful college coach, Harbaugh – like his brother, John, the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens – sees the game in its entirety.
And it’s why his San Francisco 49ers, who host the New York Giants Sunday in the NFC Championship Game, are a complete, fundamentally sound football team. The Niners block, tackle, pay attention to the fundamentals, take care of the football and want to establish a physical presence. In his previous stints as a head coach at the University of San Diego and Stanford, Harbaugh’s teams were the same way.
Blocking, for instance, is one of Harbaugh’s passions, and this Niners team reflects that. The 49ers run the ball, and know that punching holes in the Giants defense for Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter Sunday is one of the keys to the game.
“I was always coached with an offensive line perspective to everything,” Harbaugh told Jerry McDonald of the Bay Area News Group earlier this week. “It was always about the offensive line.” He credits former Michigan offensive line coach Jerry Hanlon as giving him a “deep, abiding respect for blocking and offensive line play.”
Niners offensive tackle Anthony Davis told McDonald that when Harbaugh sees a big block on film in team meetings, “It’s like he’s playing again. He’s as fired up as we are. It comes natural to him.”
One of Harbaugh’s former players at USD, who joined him as a coach at Stanford, J.T. Rogan, says Harbaugh’s teams pride themselves on blocking.
“Everyone is going to block,” Rogan told McDonald. “It’s part of his mission statement. We’re going to block and we’re going to hang our hat on it.”
Though the 49ers’ offensive line struggled early in the season, giving up too many sacks while not being able to free Gore, it came together as the season progressed. San Francisco became one of the NFL’s best rushing teams and the line that features first-round picks Davis, tackle Joe Staley and guard Mike Iupati is now a formidable force.
Nowhere was the Niners’ ability to block more apparent than on Alex Smith’s 28-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter that gave San Francisco a lead last week in its divisional-round victory over the Saints.
Wide receiver Kyle Williams and Staley made two key open-field blocks to open a lane down the sideline for Smith’s TD.
Harbaugh was excited this week as he talked about both blocks, but especially the one by Staley, who at 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds, pulled and sprinted in front of Smith and cut down Saints defensive back Isa Abdul-Quddus.
“I would say Joe was running like a tight end, but he wasn’t,” Harbaugh told the New York Times. “He was running faster. He was running like a DB. And Joe told us in the locker room: ‘Wait until you see my block. Wait until you see my block on film.’ And it was a tremendous block.
“The stride, the beauty of the arm action, the leg cycle, the speed. And to cut a corner in open space, that’s similar to tackling a guy in open space, and Joe is that kind of athlete.”
Staley, a Pro Bowl selection this season, ran track in high school.
The return of tight end Delanie Walker from a broken jaw – he says he will play Sunday – should aid Staley and the rest of the Niners’ offensive line Sunday against the Giants’ active, athletic front four that has 17 sacks in New York’s past four games.
As Harbaugh looks toward Sunday’s game, he knows his offensive line and defensive lines may well be the keys. And he has the ultimate confidence in both. He calls those lines “the tip of the spear on this football team.”
He knows they can block and they can tackle. That’s what his teams do.
“It’s the physical play, the selfless attitude,” Harbaugh told the New York Daily News. “We probably haven’t talked about the offensive line just in terms of how pleased we are with them. All of them, they’ve done a nice job. Those seven guys have all contributed in a big way for us.”