The San Francisco 49ers saw their running game largely stifled in their Week 12 victory over the Los Angeles Rams. As they look to add further fuel to their Wild Card push with a second successive win by beating the Buffalo Bills, the Niners can ill-afford another inefficient effort on the ground and the performance of their left tackle will be crucial to hopes of Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. laying the foundation for offensive success.
San Francisco traded for Trent Williams during the 2020 NFL Draft hoping he could step in as an immediate replacement for Joe Staley following his injury-enforced retirement. Despite not playing a snap for the Washington Football Team in 2019, Williams has more than lived up to the billing in his first year as a Niner.
Williams went into Week 13 ranked as the second-best tackle in the NFL this season by Pro Football Focus. Only David Bakhtiari (90.6) had a higher grade than Williams (90.0).
The seven-time Pro Bowler was excellent in Week 12, with a performance made all the impressive given it came following a battle with coronavirus that Williams described as "the toughest thing I ever had to do in my career".
He excelled as a pass protector and in run-blocking, and his abilities in the latter area could be critical as the Niners go against a Bills defense that has proven vulnerable to the run.
Indeed, the Bills went into Week 13 ranked 22nd defending the run by Football Outsiders DVOA having allowed over 100 yards rushing in six games, including two where they were gashed for over 200 yards.
That should be music to the ears of a 49ers offense that is at its best when they can control the game with the run and keep things simple for backup quarterback Nick Mullens with well-defined reads on play-action looks.
Williams played a substantial role in the 112 rushing yards the 49ers put up at a rate of 3.4 yards per carry against the Rams, his performance a shining example of how to run block in the Kyle Shanahan offense, and it is that on which we reflect in this week's edition of Niner in Focus.
The ability to block on the move and get to the second level is pivotal for offensive linemen operating in Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme. Williams, having played under Shanahan in Washington, has long since been a masterful exponent of that skill.
He demonstrated his prowess in that regard consistently against the Rams, springing Raheem Mostert for some of his better gains on the running back's return from an ankle sprain. In the first quarter, Williams achieved a feat beyond the realm of most offensive linemen by successfully – and easily – sealing off Aaron Donald while running to this right.
Later, Williams showcased his talents as a second-level blocker, executing a combo block on Morgan Fox with tight end Ross Dwelley before driving the Rams defensive end backwards to help Mostert break into the secondary.
Even more impactful demonstrations of Williams' acumen as a run blocker came on two of the most significant plays of the Week 12 clash.
Williams locked down Donald on the key block that allowed Mostert to surge in for the 49ers' first touchdown of the contest.
And he came up huge on the biggest play of the game late in the fourth quarter, collapsing the right defensive end on fourth-and-one, creating a hole for Kyle Juszczyk to move the sticks and set Robbie Gould up for the game-winning field goal.
Williams was typically excellent in pass protection. While the rest of his teammates up front struggled to stop Donald from wrecking the game, Williams proved effective at keeping the perennial Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner under the wraps when the Rams lined him up on the edge across from the left tackle.
But after his display against a defense ranked seventh in rush defense DVOA going into Week 13, it is how Williams performs as a run blocker that may determine the outcome as the Niners face a team much more susceptible to significant gains from Mostert and Wilson.
The 49ers brought in Williams to be the anchor of the offensive line following Staley's departure. He has unquestionably thrived in that role and now has an opportunity to help them further right the ship and move level with the Arizona Cardinals and Minnesota Vikings in the Wild Card race with another dominant showing in the trenches.
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