By Jerrell Richardson
Last year the 49ers special teams play, specifically the kicking game was far from special. While they were not the worst in any category, they sure were close. In 2012, San Francisco was second to last in the league in both covering kickoffs and field goal percentage. The lack of a reliable field goal kicker not only cost the 49ers two wins last year, but both were against their division foe St. Louis Rams, putting the NFC West crown (for no reason), very much in doubt until the last weeks of the season. While the field goal mishaps did not derail the team’s run through the playoffs, it can’t be ignored that is was a big enough problem for the team to bring in several free agent kickers right before the playoffs. This in turn put some doubt in the mind of a team that needed no uncertainties as they headed into the playoffs. With San Francisco chasing the Seahawks for the NFC West crown and Super Bowl aspirations, they can’t afford to drop any games due to makeable missed field goals or have any question marks once the postseason arrives.
While the field goal problems did not reappear in the playoffs, the inability to cover kicks reared its ugly head at the most inopportune time; the Super Bowl. While the 49ers still had a chance late to pull out the game, Jacoby Jones record setting 108 yard return proved crucial in the biggest game of the season that was ultimately decided by 3 points.
What A Difference A Year Makes
This season the 49ers have seen a complete turnaround with their kicking game on both sides of the ball. San Francisco is allowing 20.7 yards per kick return, which is 5th best in the league, and while Phil Dawson’s 75% field percentage is towards the bottom of the list of kickers, it’s because the season is still early and other teams have not had enough time to miss. The bottom line is that Dawson missed his first attempt this season from 48 yards, and has not missed a kick since. He has been the definition of reliable, which is a far cry from last year when every field goal attempt was an adventure.
Punting Not A Concern
While Andy Lee is booming punts on an average of 48.3 yards per punt this season, his coverage units are just as impressive, holding opponents to 6.4 yards per return. These numbers are outstanding, but nothing new as last year he averaged 48.1 yards per boot, and opponents were held to 6.9 yards per return. Dawson has proved to be reliable, while Lee continues to be not only consistent but elite. With the kickers doing their job, the team can now turn its attention to the return game.
Area To Improve
In terms of kickoff returns the 49ers are near the bottom of the pile, ranked 28th with a 20.7 per return average. But the reality is that there are limited chances to make a play in the return game with the new rules allowing most kickers to sail the kick outside the field of play completely. Therefore a below average kick return team is not that big of a concern. The same can’t be said for punt returns though. The 49ers are averaging 5.7 yards per punt return which is pretty bad. While it’s more important to not muff a punt, (see 2011 NFC Championship Game), San Francisco does not have the ability to change field position with their return game.
Like kick returns, this is nothing that will stand in the team’s ultimate goal, but unlike kickoffs, the opportunity to make a plan on a punt is not uncommon. What’s puzzling is that in LaMichael James, the 49ers have a player who has proven to provide a spark in the return game. Yet, for whatever reason James has been held off the active roster the past few weeks and only the coaching staff knows why they are keeping an upgrade in for their punt and kickoff returns on the sideline.
Focus Now On D and O
While there is still plenty of football left to be played, it’s evident that this is not the same special teams unit from a year ago that had more questions than answers. Just last week it was a special teams play that helped seal a win, and the kicking, coverage and punting teams have all contributed to the team’s success this year. With no concerns from the Special Teams the coaches can focus on the offense and defense, where it should be, and completely changes the mindset of the team from a year ago as they start to get ready for the postseason.
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Jerrell Richardson is a Bay Area native who due to a college career at San Diego State University has grown an appreciation for all things sports related in California. His heart will always remain in San Francisco though where he currently resides and covers everything from the San Francisco 49ers and Giants to the San Jose Sharks and California Bears Baseball team. Jerrell is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. His work can be found on Examiner.com.