HONOLULU – A third of the 49ers recipe for success in 2011 was the consistent play of the team's special teams units.
With three San Francisco specialists representing the club at the 2012 Pro Bowl, it wasn't hard to see why the contributions from players like David Akers, Brian Jennings and Andy Lee led the team to a 14-win season and a NFC West division crown.
On Sunday, the trio combined to make several key plays in the National Football League's annual showcase game, proving once and for all just how vital they've been this year. Ultimately, the NFC team fell short, falling 59-41 to the AFC, but the 49ers were well represented at Aloha Stadium throughout the 60-minute affair.
Akers, the six-time Pro Bowl kicker, successfully executed two onside kicks (one of which was recovered by Jennings, the 49ers long snapper). Meanwhile, Lee completed an 8-yard pass on a fake punt which set up the NFC's second touchdown of the game.
The first onside kick, coupled with Lee's pass, led to 14 first half points for the NFC, who led 28-21 at the half.
The AFC squad, however, stormed back in the second half and went on to outscore their counterparts 31-13 to win in convincing fashion. Miami Dolphins wideout Brandon Marshall caught six passes for 176 yards and a Pro Bowl-record four touchdown passes to win the game's Most Valuable Player award.
But for San Francisco's representatives, it was clear that the special teams trio deserved much of the credit for the NFC's success on Sunday.
"Those guys are phenomenal guys," five-time 49ers Pro Bowl linebacker Joe Staley said. "They're very good at what they do. They came out today and showcased a little of that. We're very fortunate to have them on our team."
Likewise, the NFC was fortunate to have them and the Green Bay Packers coaching staff made sure to use all their punt, pass and kicking talents.
Akers' second onside kick, recovered by Jennings, was attempted in the third quarter with the NFC leading 35-31. The kick bounced around at first, but eventually the 49ers long snapper wound up with the ball and held it high in the air for everyone to see.
Hours later, Jennings held on to the ball postgame during on-field interviews.
"I'm going to get it painted up and put it on a shelf," said Jennings, who made his second Pro Bowl appearance.
For more on the contributions of the six San Francisco Pro Bowlers, here are notes and quotes from each participant.
Patrick WillisThe five-time Pro Bowler made the start at inside linebacker for the NFC and also saw time on the kick-off return team as a front line blocker. Willis, however, didn't have to block anyone as Sebastian Janikowski provided a touchback out of the end zone, a kick nearly fielded by Jacksonville Jaguars mascot "Jaxson de Ville." Willis recorded his first tackle of the game as he pushed Willis McGahee out of bounds on a 20-yard swing catch and run by the Denver Broncos running back. Willis recorded another tackle when Vincent Jackson was the recipient of a reverse. He took down the San Diego Chargers receiver after a gain of seven yards. Willis once more played special teams, joining the punt coverage team where he helped close down the running lanes for Pittsburgh Steelers returner Antonio Brown. In total, Willis finished the game with four tackles, but said he was pleased to be a part of the game once again. "I don't take it for granted," Willis said. "Each time I make it, I'm grateful, I'm thankful, I'm very appreciative of the fans who vote me in. It's truly fun."
Justin SmithThe All-Pro defensive tackle in San Francisco's 3-4 scheme lined up at defensive tackle in the NFC's 4-3 defensive alignment to start of the game. At first, Smith didn't bull-rush the AFC linemen like he did in years past. But, Smith was always around the football late in the game. With the AFC looking to take the lead down 35-31 in the third quarter, Smith recorded a tackle on a short run by Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew. With the AFC marching at the start of the fourth quarter with a 38-35 lead, Smith recorded an assist on a Ryan Matthews run. Smith was credited with three tackles after the game, but said he appreciated the time with his teammates, as well as getting to know other defensive players. "I think the main thing is getting to know some of the players around the league, picking some of the other guys brains, pass rushers, things like that," Smith said, who's made three consecutive Pro Bowl appearances. "You figure out what they're doing to make themselves successful."
Following a failed fourth down attempt on the AFC's opening drive, the first-time Pro Bowl tackle and the NFC offense took over on their own 49-yard line with Staley lining up at right tackle. With New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees entering the game to start the second quarter, Staley switched over to left tackle to protect the quarterback's blindside. Staley remained at left tackle to start the second half, this time, he was protecting Carolina Panthers rookie Cam Newton, who finished the rest of the game out. Staley enjoyed the experience whole-heartedly, but certainly didn't mince words when it came to making future Pro Bowl visits. "We don't want to be here," Staley admitted. "We want to get ready for the Super Bowl, but it's a pretty good consolation prize. It feels great to be nominated by my peers to be here."
The 49ers All-Pro kicker, along with fellow All-Pro punter Andy Lee, were the first 49ers out on the field to warm up an hour before kick-off. Akers connected on a few field goals from 60 yards out, but never attempted a field goal in the game. Akers kicked off to start the game and forced Antonio Brown to field it falling towards the back of the end zone for a touchback. Akers' only non-touchback was returned 29 yards. Following the game's opening score on an Aaron Rodgers touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald, the NFC successfully recovered Akers' first onside kick. On the next play, Rodgers hit Fitzgerald for a 44-yard touchdown. Akers attempted a second onside kick with les than 11 minutes remaining in the third quarter; this one was recovered by Jennings to set the NFC up inside of AFC territory. Akers enjoyed the strong day by his special team cohorts, but couldn't help think about the rest of the 49ers coverage players, who go by "Tony Montana Squad." Akers, however, made sure to give them a shout-out in his postgame interview. "I missed Blake (Costanzo), Goody (Tavares Gooden), C.J. (Spillman), (Anthony)Dixon and all those guys out there," Akers said. "We got the Tony Montana Squad back in Cali, I think we ticked them off with all the onside kicks and fake punts. They had our number today, but it was still fun to come out and enjoy it."
While Akers boomed a 60-yard field goal during pre-game warm-ups, Lee connected on a 60-yard punt as he warmed up himself. With so many touchdowns and turnovers taking place in the first quarter, Lee came on the field for the game's first punt, connecting on a 44-yarder. Lee, coincidentally, broke the NFL's single-season net punting average with 44.0 yards per punt in the regular season. Later, Lee completed an 8-yard pass to Cardinals rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson to keep an NFC drive alive on a well-timed fake punt play. Lee's pass set up another NFC score, this time it was Drew Brees to Green Bay Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings for an 11-yard touchdown. The All-Pro punter put up a 62-yard punt for his second attempt, as Patrick Willis and Brian Jennings were part of the NFC punt cover team, too. Lee added a 56-yard punt after the NFC was unable to respond to Marshall's third touchdown of the game, an impressive 47-yard touchdown grab that saw two NFC defenders collide into each other and knock the ball towards Marshall's shin which then ricocheted the ball into his arms as he was down in the end zone. Lee's pass wasn't as flashy as some of other big plays in the game, but nonetheless, it was his second completed pass in a Pro Bowl. "In 2008, we did that same play, same coaching staff, same play," said Lee, who averaged 51.0 yards on his four punts. "It's always cool to come out here and have some fun and we did some things to have some fun. Came out on the losing end but it was a great week and I had fun time today.
The 49ers long snapper, who didn't have his gear arrive with him in Hawaii at the start of the week, joined his specialist teammates on the field 45 minutes before kick-off with his helmet in hand. Jennings wanted Akers to provide touchbacks so he didn't have to make too many tackles on special teams and he got his wish when Akers sent the opening kick into the back of the end zone. Late in the second quarter, Jennings helped the NFC trip up Brown on his 29-yard kick return. In the third quarter, Akers converted a second onside kick, this time recovered by Jennings, who proudly held up the football afterwards. "I was really hoping we'd win for two reasons: One, I'm saving up for a pool, the extra money could help. And two, I really felt I had a shot at the MVP award."