Walcoff: Success to be decided in trenches

Two of the NFL’s youngest starting quarterbacks, former overall No. 1 picks JaMarcus Russell of the Raiders, who turns 23 on Saturday, and the 49ers’ Alex Smith, 24, lead their teams into Friday’s preseason opener at McAfee Coliseum armed with new and exciting weapons. But all the skill, speed and fresh strategies won’t carry these two storied franchises back to prominence without major improvement in the play of the men who never throw, run or catch the ball: the offensive line.

Last season, Bay Area quarterbacks cried 96 tears … one for each time they were unable to get off a pass without a defensive player planting them into the ground.

The 49ers gave up a franchise-worst 55 sacks, the Raiders 41 (after surrendering a team-record 72 sacks in 2006).

San Francisco has called upon offensive wizard Mike Martz to stop the QB abuse. More spread-formation sets and quick, timing routes should take some of the heat off Smith. But Martz is the fourth coordinator Smith has had in his four years in the league and clearly has suffered as much from the ever-changing game plan as he has from an all too porous offensive line.

In training camp, Smith has excelled in hot-read drills, throwing crisp, short passes against blitzing defenses. Unfortunately, he continues to struggle with the deep ball.

Smith says his surgically repaired shoulder is close to 100 percent, but watching his long passes often flutter in the air belies those words. Martz is wisely planning to get more touches for ever-dangerous running back Frank Gore, but look for opposing defenses to continue to crowd the box to contain Gore and dare the 49ers to attack downfield. With a shuffled-up offensive line, a question mark at quarterback and a wicked-tough schedule, the Niners’ improved defense (newcomer Justin Smith and rising star Manny Lawson, fully recovered from ACL surgery, have looked great in camp) may be the key to improving on last season’s 5-11 record.

Meanwhile, in the land of Silver and Black, the five-year funk appears to be nearing an end.

The rocket-armed Russell could win an extreme makeover competition following his lost rookie season. Adding a couple of accomplished and fast veteran receivers in Drew Carter and Javon Walker should help, but Walker has struggled following his offseason assault.

Lightning-quick first-round pick Darren McFadden lines up almost anywhere and is showing he can make something special happen whenever he gets the ball.

Throw in last season’s 1,000-yard rusher, Justin Fargas, and powerful but nimble 240-pound back Michael Bush, fully recovered from complications from a broken leg that cost him his entire rookie season, and the Raiders have quite the “dash, slash and smash” trio of running backs.

Of course, defensively the Raiders were dreadful in stopping the run a year ago, giving up a league-high 5.1 yards per carry. Newcomer Gibril Wilson, who over the past five years has more tackles than any safety in the NFL, provides much-needed toughness to the secondary. Former Atlanta Falcons Pro Bowl pick DeAngelo Hall paired alongside Nnamdi Asomugha gives the Raiders two of the best shutdown corners in the game.

Now that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan finally has the personnel to play his beloved man-to-man coverage downfield, the question is: Do the Raiders have enough up front to make opposing quarterbacks sweat? Last year, Oakland was last in the league with 27 sacks.

But with all the uncertainty in the trenches for both local teams, don’t expect a Raiders-Niners Super Bowl in Tampa on Feb. 1.

Then again, at least it’s not likely S.F. or Oakland will be holding the No. 1 overall pick in April’s draft, either.

Rich Walcoff is the sports director at KGO Radio (810 AM) and can be heard weekdays between 5-9 a.m. on the “KGO Morning News.” He can also be reached at richwalcoff@abc-sf.com.

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