In just his second 49ers season, offensive lineman Joe Staley is making the transition from right tackle to left tackle, considered to be the toughest and most critical spot on the offensive line. Staley will be responsible for protecting quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan’s so-called blind side this season when he’s not busy opening holes for running back Frank Gore.
I caught up with Staley on Monday morning in the 49ers' locker room and asked him about his transition to the left side and his outlook approaching the 49ers’ Sept. 7 season-opener against Arizona.
Here’s some of what Staley had to say. And yes, he talks a pretty good game, too. Just ask a question and get out of the way.
Q: How has the transition been going?
A: “I feel like it’s gone well. I’ve made progress in every game. The first game was a little shaky against Oakland. I definitely played a lot better in Green Bay, and my last game (against Chicago) was my highest grade-out game. As far as grading out, it was one of my better games I’ve had in my career so far, just as far as my plusses or minuses. So I was pretty happy with that. It gives me some good confidence going into the regular season coming up. I’m not going to get a whole lot of work (Friday) against the Chargers. So that game, we got 60 plays, which is a ton. It’s almost like we played a full game from a plays standpoint. So, going against (Chicago’s first string) and getting that confidence and moving the ball, scoring a lot of points, it was a good game, as far as all-around. Feeling good going into the season. I definitely have a lot of things I need to work on, like always, practicing, just making it consistent so I don’t have those games like the Oakland game where I didn’t play very good.”
Q: After the Oakland game, coach (Mike) Nolan said the left side of the line started a little soft. Were you a little tentative at first?
A: “I don’t know what it was. I didn’t have that aggressive attitude like I usually have. It was just kind of almost just trying to get by. It really showed in my play. Learned a lot from that game. The next couple games I practiced real hard and played a lot better. I’m feeling pretty confident going into the year. As far as from an offensive standpoint, too, we’re showing a lot of confidence on the field with us moving the ball. As we learn this system, because it’s so complex and we’re doing so many different things, you’re going to see the offense start coming together and really be on the same page a lot.”
Q: Have there been a lot of changes in the blocking schemes?
A: “Yeah. It’s simpler but at the same time also more complex. It’s simpler in the fact that we’re not redirecting every single protection and taking care of every little problem we have, like a safety or corner. …. The quarterbacks kind of take care of it… It’s simpler in that aspect but you have to be exact and know exactly who you’re taking care of and what protection. Because last year we’d be like, we’d see a problem here, it doesn’t matter what the protection is, we’re going to take care of it. Offensive linemen were supposed to take care of everything. Now it’s like, you see a safety come down, you have to know, in this protection do I have him, or am I going to stay tight inside? So it really solidifies the protection front… But as far as knowing your responsibilities, you can’t just like fall into things like we did last year. … You have to be really on as far as knowing exactly what your responsibilities are and what you’re supposed to do.”
Q: Have there been changes in the run blocking this year? Last year the expectations were so high and for whatever reasons, it just didn’t happen.
A: “The same plays are in basically. Every team has the same basic plays, your powers, your zones. It’s when you call them, how often you call them. It seems to me we want to get outside a little more, as opposed to the inside runs as we were last year. It’s really good because Frank (Gore) is such a shifty back. Same with DeShaun (Foster). They’re such shifty backs, and they have that quick explosion. They make one guy miss on the outside, it’s wide open. You saw that in the Chicago game. That first drive, probably five of the eight runs we had were outside zone calls. The big runs we had, that one that Zak Keasey had was an outside zone call. He made one guy miss and then we had 20 yards right there. I think the play-calling, same plays. Just the way that we’re calling them is a little bit different than the way we did last year. And also, last year where we had a lot of problems, they were forcing us to pass on them because our passing game wasn’t very good, so we were seeing eight, nine in the box every play. And this year with our offense and the way we’re passing the ball and the way this offense is run, the structure, we’re getting a lot more cleaner looks as far as the fronts, so we’re having more success.”
Q: That’s a lot more fun.
A: “Well yeah. You don’t have to deal with an extra guy. Last year we always had a guy in the box that we couldn’t get (to). And he’s the guy making the plays. I think we’re going to get a lot more cleaner looks this year because they have to respect our passing game and what we do on the outside.”
Q: Is moving to left tackle a point of honor?
A: “I think it’s more in the spotlight so it puts more pressure on yourself. I know I put more pressure on myself to perform well because I’m on that side because it’s really looked at as being, in the media and by the fans, as being the premier position on the offensive line. But as far as the way I look at it, I think it’s just another position on the offensive line, and we all have to work together. Because no matter whether the left tackle is getting beat or the center or the guard – any position – he’s going to get to the quarterback. It’s not like the guy on the left gets there quicker if you get beat. Everybody has to work together. I find it’s just as important as any other position, but I think it’s blown up because you’re protecting the blind side. And the right tackle has maybe a little easier time because with a right-handed quarterback he can see it and step up or make an adjustment. But the back side, he’s just sitting there. If you get beat, he’s a sitting duck, so it puts more pressure on you to be exact with your technique and footwork. That’s what I’ve been really working hard at this training camp.”
Q: You’re typically matched up against their best pass rusher, right?
A: “I feel it was that way. I feel like more so, especially in our division, we’re seeing speed guys. The game has gone to more of speed on both sides. Typically in the past you’d have your run stopper play against the right tackle. You’d have your mauler type over there, and you’d have your athletic guys, pass rusher on the left side. In our division, for example, you have Leonard Little, who plays over our right tackle. You have (Patrick) Kerney, who’s their pass rush specialist, playing over the right side. I think you’re seeing a shift where you have pass rushers on both sides so you have to have equally athletic tackles on both sides.”
Q: What’s been the biggest challenge with the switch?
A: “It’s always a challenge just getting your technique and being exact with that and very consistent. That doesn’t change. Last year was the same, me moving from left to right. I played left in college and moved to the right side. It was just the challenge of getting your technique exact. And also, one of the other things is playing next to a different person. You’ve got to know exactly how they play, their style of play. So just getting that camaraderie with that person next to you and being comfortable playing with that person next to you.”