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Special Teams Year in Review

Posted Feb 9, 2012



In the final installment of a three-part series, 49ers.com reviews the highlights and memorable notes and quotes from the third and final phase of the game in the 2011 season. Last up is the special teams units which contributed significantly in a 13-win regular season that saw the 49ers make several game-changing plays under assistant head coach/special teams coordinator Brad Seely.

Overview

Three Pro Bowlers, two All-Pros and one kickoff anthem.

The San Francisco 49ers special teams units proved to be a major strength under the steady leadership of coach Jim Harbaugh and his trusted special teams instructor Seely.

Increased attention to detail on special teams from the start of training camp in which Seely pushed the players through up-tempo practices, along with the addition of several talented coverage players enabled the group to rewrite NFL record books in 2011.

Don’t forget about the group’s style points. They weren’t always swaying side-to-side in kickoff huddles – the group put together onside kicks and fake field goal passes for touchdowns – all while coming up with an alter ego for the group, becoming the “Tony Montana Squad.”

Once the team identified the “Tony Montana” song as its kickoff anthem, a rap song based on the fictional lead character from the movie Scarface, kickoffs at Candlestick became unique. They were even more intensified when the performer of the song, Future, did surprise performances on top of the old baseball dugouts before both home playoff games.

“The song is something that brought us all together,” said linebacker Tavares Gooden after a regular season in which he recorded 12 special teams tackles. “It’s something everyone looks forward to. Everyone feeds off of it. It’s something simple, something cool.”

With the group playing well-coached, intelligent football with relentless effort, there was no trouble playing for each other throughout the 2011 season.

Look no further than the 49ers specialists, kicker David Akers, punter Andy Lee and long snapper Brian Jennings all earning starts in this year’s Pro Bowl.

Akers and Lee broke NFL records and were named All-Pros as well.

Both specialists will likely have an affinity for the number 44 after their first season as teammates.

Akers broke the league’s single-season field goal record with 44 made kicks on the season. Lee, on the other hand, broke the NFL’s net punting average mark with a record of 44.0 yards in 2011.

But it wasn’t just the specialists who stood out during a 13-win regular season. The coverage units’ consistent play saw the team lead the league in average starting field position (33.5 yard-line) and average opponent starting field position (24.4 yard-line).

Akers even connected on a well-timed, fake field goal pass in a Week 17 win in St. Louis. The veteran kicker completed his second career pass for his first career touchdown, when he tossed a 14-yard completion to wide-open wide receiver Michael Crabtree.

“A great play design, well-executed by our players, and Brad Seely, again, all the credit goes to him for the play design and picking the right time to call it,” Harbaugh said after the win clinched the 49ers a first-round bye in the playoffs.

“It had a few factors that made it the perfect time and we sure needed it as it turned out. Again, you find ways to win a football game, and different ways than in some cases than we had been winning football games. That bodes well for us, when you’re a team that can find different ways to win a game.”

Stat That Counts

If kicking was at its best in San Francisco during the 2011 regular season, the same could be said for the team’s coverage units.

In a season filled with a number of statistical achievements, the 49ers finished the season as the only team in the NFL not to allow a return of any kind for a touchdown.

The coverage players stood out with speed and aggression. Defensive players like linebacker Blake Costanzo, safety C.J. Spillman, Gooden, linebacker Larry Grant, safety Colin Jones and safety Madieu Williams were among the punt and kickoff team units that played a large role in the team’s success.

“They do it with an enthusiasm that’s second to none,” said Akers of his coverage team. “They’ve been able to really solidify our coverage units. To me, I just think that is something teams don’t emphasize. It really takes a lot of knowledge, reading schemes, playing off each other and working through the scheme Brad develops.”

In the playoffs, the 49ers special teams unit tallied two takeaways (one on kickoff coverage and one on punt coverage) against the New Orleans Saints. Both takeaways led to Akers field goals.

Williams recorded a forced fumble on a kickoff return by Saints wide receiver Courtney Roby and the loose ball was recovered by Costanzo. The crucial early takeaway in San Francisco’s first postseason win since 2003 led to a 25-yard field goal from Akers. In the second half, Costanzo forced a fumble on a punt return from Saints running back Darren Sproles and Jones recovered the ball to set up a 41-yard kick from Akers.

Those six points proved to be pivotal in a game eventually won by the 49ers, 36-32, a margin of four points.

Game of the Year

The 49ers faced talented returners all season; the likes of Eagles wideout DeSean Jackson, Cardinals rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson, and Seahawks running back Leon Washington to name a few.

Fortunately for San Francisco, it didn’t have to chase down its own returner, especially during the season opener on the 10-year anniversary of September 11, 2001.

Right out of the gates, Ted Ginn Jr.’s two touchdown returns in a 33-17 home win over the Seattle Seahawks demonstrated just how valuable the 49ers special teams groups would be all year.

Ginn went on to win NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors for his 102-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and his 55-yard punt return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of a closely contested divisional game.

The wide receiver finished the day with a franchise-best 268 return yards, becoming the first 49ers player to return a kickoff and punt for a touchdown in the same game.

“Ted’s a stud,” Harbaugh said after his first win as a head coach in the NFL. “There’s no doubt that he’s a heck of a football player and a great guy. I think nobody would be disputing that.”

Ginn remained consistent in his returns throughout the season. The 49ers registered 10 punt returns of 20-or-more yards, most in the NFL.

Quote of the Year

“LIV!”

It’s probably more of a demeanor more than a quote, but the saying used often by Costanzo, the linebacker who led the team with 17 special teams tackles in the regular season and represented the special teams units as captain at pre-game coin tosses, was perhaps most memorable from the special teams players in 2011.

Teammates soon adopted the saying and started repeating it back to Costanzo around the team facility as a greeting of sorts.  

After going undrafted and having to work his way to the NFL level, Costanzo’s saying shows how the special teams standout takes his job in stride with admirable perspective.

“I embrace my role,” Costanzo said in late October. “It’s been a tough road to get to where I’m at and for a lot of guys in my position. The only way you can get there is through hard work and being selfless. I embrace it. I love it and I think a lot of guys have bought into it. That’s why we’re having the success we’ve had.”

Newcomer of the Year

Players like Costanzo, Gooden and Grant stood out in joining the 49ers this past season, but Akers slightly overshadowed their contributions in a 44-made field goal season which set the NFL’s single-season record for made kicks.

The veteran connected on all 34 of his PATs and became the franchise’s all-time leader in single-season scoring accounting for 166 points on the year, passing Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice’s 138 points in 1987.

Akers also surpassed the career 300 made field goal mark wearing a 49ers uniform in a 13-8 road win over the Cincinnati Bengals with a 23-yard made field goal in the third quarter. Akers now has 338 career field goals and ranks 16th all-time on the made field goal list and is sixth in made kicks among active kickers.

Asked to describe what Akers has meant to the 49ers, Harbaugh replied: “He’s probably the most talented guy at what he does, not only in the league this year, but it may shake out that he’s the best of all time.”