Michigan's Joe Staley still the guts of the Niners' line

Cam Inman
San Jose Mercury News
Joe Staley

Santa Clara, Calif. -- Joe Staley stood at his locker. Reporters huddled around him. An obligatory "congratulations" was said to him for making a fifth consecutive Pro Bowl.

Staley accepted the gesture in stoic fashion.

"This has been a disappointing season," Staley said. "It's not exciting at all to lose and to have a record like 4-10. It's been very frustrating."

How dare anyone from the 49ers' patchwork, sack-yielding offensive line make the Pro Bowl? Because Staley isn't just anyone, nor is the league bustling with top-flight linemen.

Coaches, opponents and teammates admire Staley's steady, blue-collar style. It's an approach he honed growing up in Rockford, Michigan, some 2.5 hours northwest of Detroit, where the 49ers will play Sunday.

"Joe is one of the best in the league and has a lot of respect from guys, and it's cool to watch," guard Alex Boone said.

Detroit News predictions: Lions vs. 49ers

Now in his ninth year, Staley, the 2007 first-rounder from Central Michigan, is the 49ers' longest-tenured player and their nominee for the NFL's Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award. He's also a captain who hasn't stopped leading amid this season's travails.

"I work with Joe every day in individual (drills) and I just try to imitate everything he does, as far as hand placement and foot quickness," rookie Trent Brown said. "I feel I've gotten a lot better doing that."

As unstable and unreliable as the line has been this season, Staley has steadily protected the blind side of quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert. That doesn't mean Staley has been perfect. The 49ers have allowed 49 sacks, tied with the Tennessee Titans for the league's most.

"This season I feel I've been doing pretty well," Staley said. "I had one bad game against the Bears. That's the one I want back."

When the 49ers add extra blockers, it's most often on the right side while Staley fends for himself.

"At times, you wonder if that's unfair to a guy like Joe Staley, because he's often out on an island," offensive coordinator Geep Chryst said. "And when he's going up against good players, he's the one that has to kind of fight the solo fight, and he does a very good job of that."

Staley hasn't been in any mood this season to soak up adulation. He boiled over, rightfully so, after the 49ers lost 24-10 at Cleveland on Dec. 13, when he said the 49ers entered with "the wrong mentality" and can't take any opponent lightly.

Staley, 31, would know. Despite a nagging knee injury, he has started 78 consecutive games, the fifth-longest streak among active offensive tackles.

While Staley is best known for his athleticism -- he was a high school tight end -- coach Jim Tomsula pointed out this week that Staley's strength should not be overlooked.

"Ever since I've been here -- for five years -- he's always been the leader of the offensive line," center Daniel Kilgore said. "This year is probably a little bit more challenging."

49ers at Lions

Kickoff: 1 p.m. Sunday, Ford Field, Detroit

TV/radio: Fox/97.1

Line: Lions by 10

Records: 49ers 4-10, Lions 5-9

Series: 49ers lead 36-26-1