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Special Teams Looks for ‘Elite’ Play

Posted Jun 12, 2013

The 49ers made several offseason additions to bolster the roster, many of which were focused on improving special teams play.

The 49ers made several offseason additions with the intent of improving special teams play.

Enter eight-year veteran safety Raymond Ventrone.

When San Francisco’s special teams units met last season to review some of the best practices in the NFL, Ventrone’s game film with the Cleveland Browns was often used as a teaching tool by special teams coordinator and assistant head coach Brad Seely.

“He’s one of the guys who jumps off the film making plays, covering kicks downfield,” starting fullback and core special teams player Bruce Miller noted. “He’s reckless and I love watching him on the tape. He’s just a guy who jumps out, always making plays around the football. That’s definitely what you want from your coverage team.”

By signing Ventrone last month, San Francisco continued an offseason trend of making it a priority to improve coverage teams.

The 49ers allowed a 108-yard return kick return in Super Bowl XLVII that turned out to be a pivotal play in a losing effort. The long touchdown return from Jacoby Jones highlighted a down season for the kick-off coverage team that allowed 26.9 yards per return in  the 2012 regular season. The average was second-worst in the NFL. The 49ers finished the postseason allowing 30.8 yards per return. Conversely, the 49ers finished fourth-best in the NFL, allowing 6.9 yards per punt return, the number would have been much lower if not for one touchdown given up to the Green Bay Packers in a Week 1 win.

Nonetheless, Ventrone aims to improve the team's special teams statistics now that he’s reunited with Seely, his former mentor in New England and Cleveland.

Just days after signing one-year contract with the 49ers, Ventrone was inserted into the first-team kick-off team at OTA workouts. He's also lined up as a personal protector with the first punt team and has even taken reps at wide receiver with the third-team offense.

“I’ve been a productive player in my career the last few years and I’m familiar with Coach Seely’s scheme,” Ventrone said of his comfort level in San Francisco. “I think he’s confident in me that I’d be able to jump in and know what’s going on.”

Ventrone wanted to work with Seely again and also took notice to the talent on San Francisco’s special teams units.

“The last couple of years I’ve watched the 49ers and before I even got here, it seemed like a fun place to be,” said Ventrone, who has 39 special teams tackles in seven seasons. “The guys actually enjoy doing what they’re doing.”

Ventrone and Miller are joined on the first-team kick-off coverage group by cornerback Tramaine Brock, linebacker Dan Skuta, safety C.J. Spillman, defensive tackle/tight end Demarcus Dobbs, running back Anthony Dixon, cornerback Perrish Cox, safety Darcel McBath and linebacker Michael Wilhoite.

Jim Harbaugh believes the group can become one of the best in the league given the competitions set to take place for those coveted roles. In addition to signing Ventrone, the 49ers added other veteran special teams contributors: safety Craig Dahl, plus wideouts Marlon Moore and Kassim Osgood. San Francisco also drafted Florida State linebacker Nick Moody, a player the team coveted for his special teams coverage ability.

“We are taking a special teams unit that’s been very good, very productive, and seeing if we can’t get even better,” Harbaugh said.

The 49ers coach has always pushed for competition across the board on his roster. Special teams roles are no different.

“I think the way it’s been assembled right now, the guys that are on the punt team and the kickoff team in particular on our team, will have shown a great desire to be on those teams because they’re going to be very competitive,” Harbaugh said. “I think those teams have the chance to be elite.”

Ventrone and the other special teams standouts aim to reach those goals of the coaching staff, but remain focused on taking things one step at a time. First, the group has to master learning Seely's system and then build on their understanding when the pads come out at training camp.

“Whenever you talk about goals, people say, ‘We want to be the best,’” Ventrone began, “from seeing the talent we have here, we are capable of being the best.

“We’ve just got to make it happen.”


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