The 49ers offensive line had been remarkably stable over two seasons. Through the game at New Orleans Nov. 17, the same starting five had made 26 consecutive starts together.
Left tackle Joe Staley, left guard Mike Iupati, center Jonathan Goodwin, right guard Alex Boone and right tackle Anthony Davis not only were good, but durable – a huge component in the success the 49ers have enjoyed.
But now, as the 49ers prepare to host the Seattle Seahawks Sunday and wrap up the final four games of the 2013 regular season, the team’s offensive line has been forced to adapt, improvise and overcome a pair of injuries.
First, Iupati was lost in the Saints game. Now, the 49ers will likely be without Staley this weekend – and probably longer – after suffering an injury early in the victory over the Rams.
Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, citing a source close to the situation, reported that Staley sustained a sprained medial collateral ligament (MCL) and was scheduled for an MRI exam Monday to determine the severity of the injury. It’s the same type of injury sustained by Iupati vs. the Saints, and Iupati has not played since.
As he left the field at Candlestick Park Sunday, Staley had this to say when asked by Branch about his injury: “I am not going to talk about it. We will find out.”
The left side of the line protects the blind side of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and Staley and Iupati have been a terrific tandem, both being named to last season’s Pro Bowl. In addition, Iupati was first-team All-Pro and Staley a second-team All-Pro in 2012.
Now, with the 49ers (8-4) driving to earn a wild-card playoff spot, the worry has to be that a makeshift offensive line could prove disastrous for an offense that already has been inconsistent this season. Against the Rams, in fact, the line gave up four sacks and the running game netted just 83 yards.
With Staley out, right guard Alex Boone switched over to left tackle and Joe Looney – a fourth-round pick in 2012 out of Wake Forest – took Boone’s spot at right guard. With Adam Snyder already filling in for Iupati, that leaves only Goodwin and Davis in their customary spots.
Boone told reporters after the game he had no problems making the switch back to left tackle – where he played at Ohio State – saying it was “like riding a bike.” But he mostly wanted to talk about Looney, who performed well in the first extended playing time of his short NFL career.
When Looney first joined the huddle, Boone said his linemates looked at him and said, “Hey, it’s time to be a big boy.”
“A hell of a performance,” Boone told Branch, of Looney’s play. “Coming off the bench and kicking some ass. Can’t be more proud of a guy. I know he’s going to be ready for this week.”
Seattle, of course, will be a terrific test for the new group this Sunday.
The Seahawks, who play the Saints on “Monday Night Football,” are 10-1 and running away with the NFC West. They rank No. 1 in the NFL in pass defense and No. 2 in total defense. The one area they’ve been vulnerable in is rush defense, where they give up an average of 112 yards per game. But, Seattle also has gotten to the quarterback 33 times this year – three more than the 49ers. So the remade offensive line will have to work well together to protect Kaepernick.
After Sunday’s game – which had so many bright spots, with the return of Michael Crabtree, Kaepernick’s fine play and big games by Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis – 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh was uncertain what Staley’s injury will mean for his team, or how long he will be out.
“I’m not going to say,” he responded, when asked about the severity of his tackle’s injury. “We’ll see. I don’t want to rush to judgment or repeat anything until tests are done.”