Mike Iupati had himself a pretty good rookie season as the 49ers starting left guard from week one. Iupati had beaten David Baas for the job early on and set to mauling and brawling early. He played with strength and utilized leverage extremely well. He didn't necessarily "block" defenders so much as he tossed them aside like small children. There were very few times he actually looked like a rookie unaccustomed to a new, higher level of play - he simply was every bit a capable starter from day one.
Jimmy Raye's offense, as such, went through Iupati. Frank Gore was the bell cow and Iupati led him to pasture (the good kind) more often than naught. Gore, Brian Westbrook and Anthony Dixon owed a lot of yards to Iupati (and an overall improved 49ers offensive line), but there was one problem with that. Offenses simply keyed in on Iupati and knew that the runs were going to be going his way.
Couple that with the fact that teams already knew the 49ers were going to run because Jimmy Raye and Mike Singletary were very much against adapting or changing a gameplan (when they actually had one). The offense was predictable and defenses were never on their toes. There were eight or nine in the box and that box was usually collapsing in on Iupati, try as he might to stop it. He won that battle many times.
But he's only one man.
Now we're in the offseason, and many folks are taking a look at potential second year players who could break out. Guys like Ndamukong Suh and Sam Bradford are listed, and appearing more frequently is Iupati. He's was called a freak in college, an immediate starter coming into the NFL, a sure-thing as a left guard and now a potential Pro Bowler. Analysts and fans feel like Iupati will make it there some day, but what of 2011?
In 2011, Iupati will continue to be the catalyst to Greg Roman's offense. Well, he'll be the thing that enables the catalyst to function - which is to say, Frank Gore will follow Iupati multiple times a games. He'll follow him to the end zone, he'll follow him to the very brink of extinction if he must!
Perhaps not that far.
But that's the point, Iupati will once again be the guy that defenses key in on. Does that mean he's going to be ineffective at times? Not likely. That's because Harbaugh and Roman's offense will be much different from Jimmy Raye's archaic offering last season. They're both power running attacks, but there's something to say about Harbaugh and his offenses ... it's not predictable. There will be motion, lots of shifting and substitutions.
Defenses can key in on Iupati all they want, they can stack the box and follow Frank Gore on every play, but they'll get beat other ways. The 49ers will pass, they'll run play action, and they'll make the defenses pay with mismatches like Delanie Walker and Kendall Hunter. Iupati will get more attention this year, but defenses won't be able to act on that attention on every play like they did last season. Barring some kind of regression, smart money is on Iupati having a monster 2011.