49ers' offensive line has brawn, nasty attitude
Published: Tuesday, January 29, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 29, 2013 at 10:04 p.m.
Local writers know 49ers left tackle Joe Staley and right guard Alex Boone as two of the friendliest, most approachable athletes in Bay Area sports. Right tackle Anthony Davis, in contrast, has a low-energy vibe. Left guard Mike Iupati is so painfully shy around reporters that he practically sprints out of the locker room when approached. Center Jonathan Goodwin is like a friendly neighbor, a normal guy who happens to weigh 318 pounds.
The one common thread among the 49ers' starting offensive linemen is that they are pretty laid back — until the game starts.
Between the white lines, the goofy Staley engages in skirmishes with opposing defensive linemen, and Davis is known for the occasional after-the-whistle uppercut. In addition to being commended as one of the NFL's top lines this year, the Forty-Niner Five have acquired a reputation for nastiness.
“This offensive line is dirty,” said Eric Davis, who appears on NFL Network and works as a commentator with 49ers play-by-play man Ted Robinson on KNBR.
“You have to be. You don't want choir boys on your offensive line. You want big, mean, burly guys who take offense when someone hits your running back, or hits your quarterback.”
As Anthony Davis said, his voice barely above a whisper: “I'm just like that. I'm like that all the time. But I can't help it.”
The 49ers don't want him to help it. Head coach Jim Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Greg Roman and offensive line coach Mike Solari preach hard-nosed play along the line. When the Niners drafted Iupati and Anthony Davis three years ago, one of the traits that sold general manager Trent Baalke on the two players was their aggressiveness.
“They know they got guys up front that always had potential to be physical,” veteran backup lineman Leonard Davis said. “But then when we're sitting in those meeting rooms and we're going over offensive schemes and all that, they remind us, 'Hey, we want to be physical. This is the kind of team that we are. That's our identity.'”
Solari is an old-school O-line coach who tends to keep a low profile. But he has built a solid reputation over 20 years in the NFL, including 19 as an offensive line coach. He does not encourage his players to hand out flowers to opponents.
“Coach Solari does a great job of telling us to finish blocks,” Goodwin said. “He stays on us about it. No matter how good of a block we may have, if you don't finish or something, he's definitely gonna point it out. So I have to give him a lot of credit when it comes to that.”
Harbaugh also seems to relish rough-and-tumble play. But these guys aren't products of his imagination. Nasty blockers are born more frequently than they are made.
“You can't teach mean,” said Eric Davis, an NFL cornerback for 13 seasons. “I can teach you footwork, and I can teach you hand placement or pad level. But I can't make you mad. I can do something to you trying to make you mad, but I can't make you feel that way. You enjoy crushing someone's dreams — or not.”
Davis said that it's important to play under control in the NFL, and that as soon as you start manufacturing bravado, you lose control. And the same goes for the defensive side of the ball when teams try to gear up to match the 49ers blow for blow.
“Yeah, their coaches preach to them about how physical we are all week, and they try to match it,” Anthony Davis said. “But if you're not really like that, if it's not your personality, it'll last the first series.”
Whatever the origins of the 49ers' mean streak, they have put it to good use this season. The offense ranked third in the league in yards per rushing attempt (5.1), a traditional barometer of line play. The Niners did surrender the ninth-most sacks in the NFL (tied with Indianapolis at 41), but most educated observers gave Solari's group high marks.
“They're big, and they're physical, and they're downhill, and they finish plays,” ESPN analyst and former NFL offensive lineman Mark Schlereth said. “And that's the way it's supposed to be. So yeah, they're an elite group up front.”
And they will be charged with a tough task against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. Haloti Ngata is one of the game's most imposing defensive tackles, and Paul Kruger and Terrell Suggs are explosive pass rushers off the edge.
And you can bet the Ravens are fully aware of the 49ers' reputation for on-field mischief. How they react to it might be one of the keys to this game.
“You can't let that stuff get to your head,” Kruger said. “But at the same time, you do have to match the aggressiveness. But as defensive linemen, that's pretty much what we're always doing — going forward, being aggressive. So our game's not gonna change much.”
May the best, and the nastiest, team win.
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at email@example.com and on Twitter at twitter.com/Skinny_Post.