49ers' new offensive philosophy will hinge on veteran offensive line

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The success of Mike Singletary's new run-focused offense will depend greatly on the improvements of San Francisco's offensive line.

There's well more than a month until the start of training camp and Singletary already has a pretty good idea how the 49ers' line will look. He likes the personnel and potential.

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It's still too early for the coach to say who will play quarterback behind that unit, Alex Smith or Shaun Hill. He knows it will work itself out in time.

This line is an experienced group -- and experienced in how bad it felt to lead the NFL in sacks allowed last season. The players all say consistency and attention to the smallest of details will be key to turning things around for a team that's endured six straight losing seasons.

"We're still working on it right now," Singletary said Friday following the first practice during the team's mandatory three-day minicamp. "I feel very confident about our offensive line. I think those guys are continuing to jell and find the continuity they need to continue to get better. When it's time to go, we'll have what we need."

In March, the Niners signed veteran Marvel Smith to compete for the job at right tackle. Left tackle Joe Staley received a six-year contract extension Thursday. Left guard David Baas, right guard Chilo Rachal and center Eric Heitmann are also back.

"It helps the fact that we got to work some last season together," Baas said. "We work well together and I definitely think we're bonding. There's that trust level."

Singletary, beginning his first full season as head coach after taking over for the fired Mike Nolan last October, is overhauling the 49ers' offense with a philosophy heavily committed to the running game. San Francisco went 7-9 last season and scored only 339 points.

The linemen believe they are well suited for the change in styles. It would be different if they were all just getting used to playing with each other.

"We're really fortunate the guys we have on the offensive line have been together for several years," Heitmann said. "The cohesiveness you develop comes from experience, and that's what we're developing right now."

San Francisco fired offensive coordinator Mike Martz after one season and replaced him with journeyman coach Jimmy Raye, the franchise's seventh head offensive man in as many years.

The offensive linemen even have trained slightly differently this offseason under the direction of a new strength coach. They shifted from primarily explosive movements in the weight room to doing more exercises geared toward volume and strength. Whether that regimen works will be hard to know until the full pads go on next month.

On Friday, the men came together and chanted "O-line!" after the full team broke its huddle by hollering "Niners!" The animated, emotional Singletary briefly addressed the team with his usual array of emphatic hand gestures.

Staley is eager to see how the offensive line bounces back from the frustrations of last season.

"We've got to improve, everybody knows that," he said. "Fifty-five sacks is nothing to hang your hat on. ... I have no doubt in my mind we have that (ability to rebound). We have a lot of great leaders on the offensive line."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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