This past offseason, the 49ers traded for offensive tackle Jonathan Martin from Miami. It was expected that Martin, a former Dolphins starter, would give the 49ers offensive line some depth and versatility.
The Niners also drafted center Marcus Martin from USC, hoping he could push veteran Daniel Kilgore in training camp. And, with right guard Alex Boone holding out, Joe Looney was given the chance to start in the preseason and first few games of the regular season, and it was hoped he could blossom into a strong NFL player.
But none of the three was expected to start this season. Unfortunately for the 49ers, all three players have figured prominently in the starting lineup this season.
Because of injuries to right tackle Anthony Davis, Martin has started seven games. Because of a season-ending injury to Kilgore, the rookie Martin has been forced into a starting role. And because of Boone’s holdout and an injury to Mike Iupati, Looney has started games at both right and left guard.
The 49ers offensive line, long one of the franchise’s strengths, has been in flux in 2014, and the offense has suffered for it. The running game has been inconsistent and quarterback Colin Kaepernick hasn’t had the protection he’s had in the past.
So, as the final four games of the 2014 regular season unfold, the line will need to get back on track – starting with Sunday’s matchup vs. the Raiders in Oakland – if the 49ers want to make it to the postseason for a fourth straight season.
This week, it appears Davis may be on track to return. He didn’t practice Wednesday, but was working out in the weight room and reportedly is close to being cleared through the NFL concussion protocol. Davis hasn’t played since suffering a concussion vs. the Giants on Nov. 16.
Left tackle Joe Staley, meanwhile – who’s remained a steadying, consistent force on the line – also missed practice this week with some kind of stomach illness. But, he’s expected to play.
All the shuffling along the offensive line has led to the team’s worst rushing effectiveness since Jim Harbaugh became head coach in 2011. As Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle noted this week, 49ers running backs are averaging just 3.97 yards per carry in 2014, down from their 4.4 average in 2013 and 5.1 average in 2012.
Branch reported that offensive line starters missed just four starts over 2012-13. This season, Staley is the only one to start all 12 games. Other starters have missed 14 games.
So, getting Davis back into the lineup vs. Oakland this Sunday, and getting him back up to speed, will be important. Because San Francisco is going to need him in its final three games vs. the Seahawks, Chargers and Cardinals.
As Staley said after a recent loss to the Rams, the 49ers offensive line has just not been playing the way it has in the past.
“We have all the talent in the world,” Staley said after that loss. “We’ve been dong some dumb stuff and they took advantage of it. Penalties, dumb blocks, dumb techniques and dumb schemes.”
With four games remaining, the 49ers’ line needs to get smart, and effective, in a hurry.