Niners' Protection Issues Not Really a Concern

Though Smith was hit often vs. Texans, offensive line is virtually same unit that played well in 2011

The San Francisco 49ers’ performance Saturday night in a 20-9 loss to the Houston Texans was not a highlight-filled affair.

San Francisco had trouble offensively sustaining any momentum, special teams gave up a long punt return that sealed the exhibition-game loss and the main concern after the game was for the health of running backs Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James, who had to be helped from the field.

Fortunately for the 49ers, both running backs appear to have avoided major injury, according to reports Sunday and Monday.

Another concern that surfaced Saturday night was over the 49ers’ offensive line and its inability to protect starting quarterback Alex Smith.

Smith played just the first quarter Saturday night, yet was sacked twice and hit hard at least five times, according to the Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows, who reviewed film from the game.

Suddenly, the line’s ability to protect Smith – or any other San Francisco quarterback – became a talking point.

Yet the issue is probably more of a non-issue.

The offensive line, after all, is 80 percent intact from last season, with only Alex Boone at right guard the new starter among a group that proved to be a solid unit in 2011 when the 49ers went 13-3 and advanced to the NFC Championship Game.

Though Smith was sacked 44 times over 16 games last season, Smith also had his best season in the NFL and threw just five interceptions. In a sign of maturity, Smith often took sacks rather than throw the ball up for grabs.

Remember the 49ers’ opening exhibition game against the Saints last season in New Orleans, when Niners QBs were chased all over the Super Dome and sacked six times? That, too, sent up warning flags about the offensive line, yet that unit – tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis, guards Mike Iupati and Adam Snyder and center Jonathan Goodwin – eventually came together to rank as one of the top run-blocking lines in the league.

Though Smith had some rough days on the field – six sacks by the Cowboys, five by the Bengals and Cardinals and a whopping nine by blitz-happy Baltimore in a Thanksgiving night loss to the Ravens – Smith also went through long stretches with great protection last season. In one six-game stretch at midseason, the 49ers line allowed just seven sacks.

Saturday, Smith said many of the problems with the Texans’ rush were his own doing rather than the line’s.

“Really felt like the offensive line played great,” Smith told Matt Maiocco of, saying many of the hits were “self-inflicted by me” because of mixups during plays.

Barrows, too, in reviewing the film from Saturday’s game, wrote, “The line mostly, but not always, was sound. Smith, and the play calls, accounted for most of the hits.”

All things considered, the pressures and sacks on Smith Saturday night were just exhibition-season blips that shouldn’t be an ongoing regular-season issue.

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