Dependable 49ers offensive linemen carry big load
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Right guard Alex Boone arrives for work most days and swears at left guard Mike Iupati. From Boone, it's always considered a term of endearment directed at his 49ers offensive linemates.
Iupati is so used to such greetings he gets a kick out of it. San Francisco right tackle Anthony Davis pops off plenty, too. The one rule: make sure not to take it too far.
"As an offensive line, we have a great personality," Iupati said. "Every one of us has different personalities, and it's fun to come to work, and there's always a person in your face — Boone cussing at you, because that's his personality. It's no disrespect.
"That's saying, 'I love you,' in Boone's way."
Aside from the good-natured locker room antics, this group has been as dependable as they come on game day for San Francisco — a big reason the Niners returned to the Super Bowl for the first time in 18 years. The unit is one of just three in the NFL this season to start all five players in every game, joining the New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings.
"Oh wow, that's awesome," Iupati said.
They'll have to keep a good thing going against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.
"It's a big advantage to have all five guys start all 16 games of the regular season and play almost every snap together," Boone said. "When you're out there every game together, you grow from each other, you learn, you grow a bond. It's a big advantage when you know what everybody else is thinking on the offensive line. Not every team has had that this year."
Davis and Iupati were both first-round draft picks in 2010, Davis at No. 11 and Iupati six spots later at 17. Those selections were the first with Trent Baalke running the draft, and they paid off so well he was later promoted to general manager.
Iupati and Davis became instant starters and stayed with the No. 1 offense for all 16 games as rookies. Now, they're veterans.
"It's come very far, as opposed to last year, just to get that groove," Boone said of his line. "Playing every week together, game in game out, it has been tremendous for us in helping us take huge strides. We're hitting our peak right now, and there's so much more that we can learn from and grow from."
These guys have something to prove against the Ravens after allowing Baltimore to tie a franchise record with nine sacks in a 16-6 road loss on Thanksgiving night 2011. Baltimore's defense attacked the right side at every chance, so coach Jim Harbaugh moved Boone from tackle to guard to help improve the coverage.
"It was different. It just felt weird being between two guys, but I'm learning to love it," he said.
Boone credits Iupati and left tackle Joe Staley for helping with that transition. Those two were Pro Bowlers this season for an O-line that received the Most Valuable Protectors Award from Hall of Famer John Madden as the league's top line.
"The offensive line is the unsung champion of many teams but is not often celebrated, therefore with this award we honor the guys who provide the critical run blocking and pass protection," Madden said. "I've followed San Francisco all season long; they have proven they have the mental and physical toughness that enables their team's offense to put up impressive numbers on the ground and in the air."
Center Jonathan Goodwin can offer the line some advice about playing on the big stage. He won a Super Bowl with the Saints after the 2009 season, and realizes just how important the unity becomes for an offensive line when playing for a championship.
Goodwin credits Boone for his part.
"He's kind of come in there and given us our final piece," Goodwin said.
2012 newcomer Leonard Davis and Daniel Kilgore even report eligible as extra linemen in some packages.
It's taken each contribution to get this far.
They razz each other one moment, then hit the field and turn on the intensity the next.
When asked about the dance skills of his line mates, Staley said wouldn't offer much credit to the rest of them.
"I do not know about the whole offensive line, but I have the moves," he said. "The hip shakers."
Even Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs has noticed these guys have a lot of fun together.
"Staley, I think he's a guy like me," Suggs said. "He likes to have fun when he plays and that's how I like to play. The last time we played each other, when a play was going on we were serious. In between plays we would kind of just (be) chopping it up, having fun."
When Harbaugh switched starting quarterbacks from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick midseason, the line also had to adjust to the swap. It has been seamless.
Kaepernick makes his 10th career NFL start Sunday at the Superdome.
It sure hasn't hurt that they know each other so well.
"We just like to be together," Iupati said. "We're close."