SANTA CLARA — Back in mid-August, ahead of the 49ers’ third preseason game, Mike McGlinchey answered questions about preparing for J.J. Watt, three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, in the upcoming matchup.
“That’s why you play in the NFL, to play against the biggest, baddest dudes,” McGlinchey said.
McGlinchey spoke with a respectful, eager undertone. He was excited to see how he would stack up with the NFL’s best.
Fifteen regular season games into his professional career, McGlinchey now speaks with the confidence of someone who has proven, with each and every difficult opponent, that he stacks up with the NFL’s biggest and baddest.
“In terms of seeing professional players that are at the top of the game, and being able to compete with them,” McGlinchey said after San Francisco’s 15-6 loss to the Bears Sunday, “I know I can, and I have. And I have proven that. It’s on film. I just got to do it a little bit better and a little bit longer throughout a game.”
Throughout his rookie season, McGlinchey has faced some of the most accomplished edge rushers of this decade. There is a common slight against right tackles, that they do not inherit the assignment of the best opposing rusher. That is left to the left tackles.
But that has been far from the case this season. McGlinchey has lined up against Everson Griffen, Justin Houston, Melvin Ingram, Clay Matthews, and Von Miller during his first 14 NFL games. Sunday posed another challenge: Khalil Mack, the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year and four-time Pro Bowler.
Like many of those other tests, McGlinchey passed with flying colors Sunday afternoon.
McGlinchey allowed Mack one quarterback pressure. After playing the first series on Joe Staley’s side, Mack moved over to McGlinchey’s on the following drive — and found little success. For the first time in the past four games, Mack did not record a sack.
Mack’s most dominant drive came on San Francisco’s first offensive possession in the second half. On three consecutive plays, Mack knocked down Nick Mullens, accounting for all three of Mack’s quarterback hits Sunday. One came on McGlinchey.
But that was it, in what was one of Mack’s quietest performances of the season, which has featured 12.5 sacks and six forced fumbles. McGlinchey was a key reason why.
Yet the 24-year-old felt he could have played better, particularly in run-blocking.
“I thought drop-back protection, that’s what everyone was talking about, that wasn’t a problem for me today,” McGlinchey said. “I think today, (in) some base situations, they did different things, and I slipped on a technique here or there that didn’t go my way, and I think I need to clean that up.”
McGlinchey’s critical self-assessment tells you everything you need to know about his confidence. He expected to contain Mack. And the fact that McGlinchey did not see a healthy dose of Mack shows the Bears sideline respects the rookie’s talents.
Sunday continued McGlinchey’s standout rookie season. Pro Football Focus rates him as the top rookie offensive lineman in 2018. According to the website’s grading, McGlinchey is the third-best run-blocking tackle in the NFL, which eases any concern about his self-proclaimed struggles in those situations Sunday.
McGlinchey’s rookie campaign, like most, has had some rough patches. But most of his struggles in pass protection (particularly against Kansas City in Week 3) came early in the season. In Week 4, he won his matchup with Ingram, allowing just one pressure and producing three pancakes. Fast forward to Week 15, and McGlinchey held Miller, a three-time first-team All-Pro, to one pressure on 42 pass-blocking snaps.
McGlinchey still has one game remaining before his rookie season draws to a close. But he has fulfilled all expectations thus far after being drafted with the No. 9 overall pick in April. He and Joe Staley, enjoying another tremendous season, have formed one of the top tackle duos in the league.
McGlinchey is no longer looking ahead to facing the next great pass rusher on his schedule. To him, it’s a pointless exercise. He’s used to it by now.
“You see guys like that, and you hear their names, and all you do is see them on ESPN making these highlight plays,” McGlinchey said. “You focus on what you do, what your job is to do, and what your techniques are. Obviously, study what he does on film, but you can’t look at it and think Khalil Mack or Akiem Hicks or Leonard Floyd or anything like that, because you will put yourself in a pretzel all week.”