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There’s an early love affair brewing between 49ers’ offensive and defensive lines



© Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

SANTA CLARA – It is in the job description, a necessity, in fact, for a defensive lineman to do harm to the offensive lineman in front of them. It is simultaneously the job of an offensive lineman to stifle that often very large, very strong man running very angrily at him by using stronger, cleverer techniques.

The fact that the display of peak performance from an offensive lineman is a “pancake” block, resulting in an often embarrassed defensive lineman laid flat on the ground, is indicative of the positional relationship between both sides. If one side wins, the other loses, and it’s generally pretty easy to see.

Within the context of a team, contact and the summer heat tend to push that innate tension between the opposing positions up to a roiling boil as training camp churns along and position battles come into clearer focus. But for the moment, and maybe because it’s only Day 2 (and the first actual day of practice outside of OTAs) and pads are yet to come on, the 49ers’ offensive and defensive lines are nothing but complimentary about each other.

Joe Staley said following today’s practice that rookie defensive end Nick Bosa has great hips. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh explained what Bosa’s “great hips” means in a practical sense, comparing him to Mike Tyson.

“So, Bosa wins in close quarters. He needs, he wants you close to him, as close as possible,” Saleh said. “Then he just has an ability to flip his hips, get skinny all in close quarters, where most people need space so they can knock arms down and they can create angles for themselves. The closer, which guy, was it Mike Tyson, the closer you got, the more trouble you were in? I mean, he just loved to be in there tight. It’s the same thing.”

The statement by Staley was one which sort of spurred on others in a few exchanges that praised the other side of the line.

It came from the obvious reality of two top-tier tackles in Staley and Mike McGlinchey taking on the barrage of different looks thrown at them by defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s revitalized defensive line, which he said on Saturday will prioritize flexibility and having every player play in different alignments throughout camp.

The challenge of facing Dee Ford, Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner and both Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas – two players who have frequently received praise for having tremendous offseasons – is challenging enough on its own, but facing all of those guys with the varied looks Saleh showed on the first day of practice will be incredibly difficult. It will prove easier, as McGlinchey stated, as training camp goes on, because time against the same defense tends to favor the offense.

Still, the competition between the two sides will be relentless, and for the moment, that has resulted in praise. McGlinchey credited Ford’s “elite speed,” Bosa’s pedigree, technical ability and intelligence to maneuver around corners, as well as the strength of both Armstead and Thomas (along with Buckner, of course) as amounting to a “gauntlet.”

“You’ve seen how they’ve built the roster up in that [defensive line] position from top to bottom,” McGlinchey said. “We have a couple rush ends nowadays with Dee, Nick, Ronnie, Arik [Armstead] when he’s out there, Solomon [Thomas] when he’s out there. All those guys that are pushing me and Joe and Shon [Coleman] to be our best every time you go up against them. There are no lulls anymore… it’s a gauntlet out there these days.”

McGlinchey said that lineup will keep offensive lines across the league guessing, especially with the consideration that they’ll have just a week, and not a full month to game plan for it. He was especially complimentary of Ford, who’s speed can cause a bout of mania for offensive linemen.

“If you’re slow and you stay tight, he’s just going to run right by us,” McGlinchey said. “If you’re not in front of Dee, that’s his strength, is getting by people and spooking them, to the point you have to be in a little bit of a panic to get back.”

Ford was no less complimentary of McGlinchey, who he said he thought was a veteran when he joined the 49ers.

“He’s going to be really good,” Ford said. “I thought he was a vet. He has a lot of potential, very athletic, great with his hands. Us going against each other is going to be fun, and he’ll see on Sunday it’s going to be a lot easier.”

When the 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs played in Week 3 of the regular season last year, Ford was lined up solely against Staley, who forced him into an “insane” week of practice borne from the understanding that Staley would give him hell if he was prepared (and potentially even if he was). He needed a week of that sort of practice to “at least give myself a chance.”

The experience was one which Ford says he relished.

“Joe the whole time. Me and Joe,” Ford said. “That was fun. It was tough. We got after each other. We were actually talking between plays sometimes, he thought I was offsides a couple times, but something to get used to. It was very, very fun. You have to be so disciplined.”

Ford said he believed Staley was the top offensive tackle in the league, a statement, which while not necessarily sarcastic, was clearly deferential to a teammate he will have to go up against for a full month, and who he clearly respects. His second choice was McGlinchey, although that may not have been his response if he went uninterrupted. Still, it made for this fun exchange:

He was asked why Staley is so fundamentally difficult to beat as a rusher, something he initially shrugged off as obvious before breaking down in detail.

“The obvious, man… He’s hard to get around,” Ford said. “He’s strong, he’s physical, he’s great with his feet, he’s consistent. And the biggest thing is he’s available. What year is this?”

Two reporters responded in unison: “13.”

“Phew. Come on man,” Ford continued. “He’s great man, and he’s consistent and you’re not going to beat this man unless you’re bringing your hands consistently. Joe Staley man.”

Ford, like every member of the 49ers’ defensive line unit who’s been asked about expectations, said he’s prepared to embrace the expectations of being an elite defensive line. The flexibility of moving players across the line, coupled with a Solomon Thomas who Ford said “is going to be a problem,” Ford reaffirmed his belief that the upcoming season will be “fun” more than a handful of times on Saturday.

The group is led by first-year defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, who’s already made a name for himself with his penchant to be the loudest person on (and off) the field at any given moment.

It’s something Ford, a six-year veteran, has a tremendous appreciation for.

“He’s gonna get after you,” Ford said. “He can’t punch you in the face. He’s gonna yell at you, but his expectation is high every day. He’ll basically corner you. Basically, when we’re watching tape, he’ll break down every single move, every single step that you take, hand placement. He’s not going to back off. He wants perfection every single day.”

With the three potentially top-tier guys in Ford, Buckner and (possibly) Bosa, plus the two poised-for-resurgence, out-to-prove-ourselves players in Armstead and Thomas, the at-worst serviceable defensive tackles in Ronald Blair, D.J. Jones, Sheldon Day and Kentavius Street (who will all be fighting for time in the same position) coached by a perfection-demanding line coach, there’s no reason the defensive line shouldn’t “wreak havoc” on the league as general manager John Lynch proposed on Friday.

So how will opposing offensive lines deal with the 49ers’ defensive front for the first time? As Ford said, pick your poison.

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