The Oakland Tribune

49er pair are in the right spot
January 04, 2003
Gragg, Stone winning battle on the offensive line

By Roger Phillips STAFF WRITER

SANTA CLARA -- Steve Mariucci is never reluctant to drag out the trenchant football observation that games are won in the trenches.

He said Friday it will be no different Sunday afternoon when the San Francisco 49ers host the New York Giants in a wild-card playoff game at Candlestick Park.

And if we wish to pinpoint where in the trenches the 49ers might win -- or lose -- this first home playoff game since 1998, it could be on the right side of the offensive line.

The 49ers' offense swings to the right more often than Trent Lott. And on the right side of their offensive line are two who might be Giants in the hulking forms of right tackle Scott Gragg and right guard Ron Stone.

It is to the right that the 49ers run most often. It is to the right that quarterback Jeff Garcia usually scrambles. Gragg and Stone are two very big reasons -- a combined 640 pounds' worth -- for this right-ward drift.

"You develop tendencies because of what you do most often," said Mariucci, the 49ers' coach. "What you do most often is usually what you do best."

Offensive line coach Pat Morris added, "You run to your favorite players, just like you throw to your favorite receiver. If you have good guys on the right side, you're going to run there. Yes, you have some strength and power there. They're probably our most powerful linemen inside."

Gragg left the Giants and joined the 49ers before the 2000 season. Stone, another former Giant, signed before this season. The 49ers beat the Giants in the opener this season, and Stone insists thoughts of beating his former team are long gone in terms of providing added inspiration for the playoff meeting.

"That was over the first game we played," Stone said. "This is a playoff game, and we are trying to win a game, and they are trying to win a game."

Gragg, as in the opener, will face the most obvious test Sunday when he lines up across from Michael Strahan, who is known for his sacks but also is solid against the run. Gragg held Strahan without a sack in the 16-13 season-opening win on Sept. 5 in the Meadowlands.

"I was able to be successful because I knew I had a running back to help me or Stoney sliding over," Gragg said. "But there are times where I'll have to go out there and go mano a mano."

Gragg says his years as Strahan's teammate made him a better player. He knows Strahan will make his job difficult Sunday.

"His work ethic is the same on Monday through Saturday as it is on Sunday, and that made me a better player," Gragg said. "He's an every-down player. Most of his sacks are not because he is beating guys off the ball, but it is his work ethic. He fights until the whistle blows and he slips off the blocks."

Protecting the quarterback will only be part of Gragg's role Sunday. He and Stone also will be trying to create the holes for running backs Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow. Stone was voted to the Pro Bowl for his work this season. Gragg was passed over but was chosen as the winner of the 49ers' top offensive-line honor, the Bobb McKittrick Award.

"I have a lot of confidence calling plays that way," offensive coordinator Greg Knapp said. "And it complements what we do. We have a right-handed quarterback. We can play-action fake that way more. It's just a good one-two punch. They're doing well and executing run blocks, and that helps complement our passing game."

The 49ers believe their offensive line is better now than it was in the opener four months ago. Back then, center Jeremy Newberry was snapping left-handed because of an injury to his right hand. And Stone was coming in cold after missing almost all of training camp with an elbow injury.

Stone has played with the sore elbow all season and also will be playing on a sore left ankle Sunday. Nonetheless, he and Gragg will be in the trenches against the Giants, and their meat-and-potatoes contributions undoubtedly will be a key factor if the 49ers advance.

"Everything starts there, since football was invented," Mariucci said. "The run game starts in the trenches, pass protection starts in the trenches. All the other perimeter things, they are highlight films, they are the slow-motion stuff. That's the style points.

"But if you're not winning in the trenches, none of it matters. None of it matters if the men up front, the big guys, are inadequate."

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