How Important Will Special Teams Be For The 49ers?

June 20, 2018

 

49ers Special Teams are Gould

 

Special teams are an important facet of the game. Between kickoffs, punts, extra points, and field goals, special teams contributes to the scoreboard directly and indirectly through field position. The best teams, the ones who win multiple championships, do so with Pro Bowl-worthy kickers, punters and top coverage units.

 

The 49ers last year, although being a middle of the pack team (6-10), were actually pretty decent on special teams; they were one of the reasons they were within three points of winning for five straight games. With their offense struggling, their special teams gave their defense long fields to work with and Robbie Gould rewarded that sputtering offense with three points again and again.

 

With little turnover in the kicking department, last year’s stats can be looked at to see what trends 49er fans will see this year.

 

Kicking

 

Everything that Robbie Gould touched last year turned platinum. He was ranked third in field goal percentage at 95.1%, tied for second with Matt Bryant (ATL) with 39 field goals – one behind Stephen Gostkowski (NE), and wassixth in attempts with 41. He also tied Harrison Butker (KC) and Jake Elliott (PHI), who just received a pretty nice ring, with the sixth most points in the league.

 

In 2016, the year before Gould joined the 49ers, he played 11 games with the NY Giants, making all 12 of his field goal attempts.

 

Gould has made 51 out of 53 field goals over the past two seasons. It is obvious that Gould should continue to hit just about everything that he lines up for. There was no change in either his holder (Bradley Pinion) or his long snapper (Kyle Nelson). His league dominance should continue into the 2018 season.

 

Punting and Coverage

 

Pinion was one of the league’s best punters last year. He ranked 11th with 41.3 net yards, seventh in punts inside the 20 yard line (31, which was three away from second place), and had the second-fewest touchbacks of any punter with 30 or more punts (1 – Ryan Quigley of Minnesota had zero). Of his 75 punts (which ranked 16th in the league) only 33 were returned, 23 were fair catches, and there was the one touchback, which means 18 where either downed outside the 20 yard line or went out of bounds. That means only 44% of his punts were returned.

 

The punt coverage teams were just as good, letting the opposing team average only 4.2 yards on each of those 33 returns (2nd in the league). When the opposing teams’ return yards are averaged out for the full 75 punts Pinion kicked they averaged only 2.1 yards per punt. That’s some pretty darn good coverage.

 

Since none of the 49ers coverage players were near the top of the league in tackles, we know that it was a well coached coverage team, not just studs making tackles over and over again. This gives our extremely fast rookie class (Tarvarius Moore, D.J. Reed, Marcell Harris, and Richie James, along with Fred Warner if he doesn’t earn a big role with the defense) ways of making this roster. With the changes in the kick off rules, smaller, quicker players will be even more important. If Kendrick Bourne can carve out a role on the special teams coverage teams, it would help him beat out Aldrick Robinson and a host of other wide receivers on the roster.

 

Return Game

 

Last year the lead kick off return man was Victor Boldin JR. who was the 17th best kick off return man in the NFL (20.8 yards per return). With his suspension, he is a long shot to make the roster this year. In the punt-return game Trent Taylor had a decent year as the 10th best punt returner in the NFL (9.4 yards per return). Everyone who has followed the Shanahan/Lynch regime over the last year-plus has seen that they value their own. Lynch went out and paid pretty high dollar for free agents who either played in Shanahan’s offense or a defensive scheme similar to Robert Saleh’s. That doesn’t mean that Taylor will be returning punts this upcoming season.

 

The importance of special teams can be seen in the 49ers’ Round 2 draft pick: a very good wide receiver named Dante Pettis, who has scored the most punt return touchdowns in NCAA history. He might have been chosen for his special-teams ability as much as his crisp route running and speed to take the top off of defenses. We would all be shocked if he wasn’t returning punts for the 49ers this year and with Boldin’s suspension, he could just be the kickoff return man as well. It might be Shanahan’s game plan all along; allow Pettis to learn the route trees and options for a year while he blows up the special-teams world, then slide him into Pierre Garcon’s spot in the 2020 season. It’s similar to what the Chiefs did with Tyreek Hill and Jeremy Maclin.

 

What should we expect in 2018?

 

The special teams, coached by Richard Hightower, should continue to exceed league average in 2018, possibly grading out as a top five unit. This will be incredibly important to the 49ers self professed Super Bowl aspirations. The special teams giving the offense shorter fields plus the occasional three points when asked, and the defense long fields to defend will allow those two aspects of the team to capitalize on more positive score differential (the 49ers were about minus 3 points/game last year in point differential).

 

Every dynasty, or championship caliber team really, is based on strong special teams. The 49ers appear to be on that past themselves with young, fast players to plug up the gaps and one of the most decorated return men in NCAA history to add to their already stellar kicker and punter.

 

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