Nothing comes easily against these 49ers.
Hidden beneath the accolades and praise heaped upon Vernon Davis, Alex Smith, the defense, coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff, has been the subtle fact that the 49ers make an opponent’s every possession difficult.
And that’s before the defense takes the field.
Special teams have been a dagger the Niners have used to splay their opponents all season long, carving out an average starting point for an opponent’s drive this season at the 20.8-yard line, best in the NFL, which means their opponents have had the most yards to cover when trying to score.
In fact, only 11 times during the regular season did the Niners allow an opponent begin a drive in Niners territory, which ranked the 49ers as the stingiest in the league in that department.
En route to their upset victory over New Orleans on Saturday, the 49ers forced the Saints to begin 12 of their 15 possessions at their own 21-yard line or deeper. And that was simply more of what the Niners have been doing all season.
“Our special teams, the coverage units, they are the best in the business at what they do. The [LB Blake] Costanzos, the [LB Tavares] T-Goodens, [FB] Bruce Miller and [CB Tramaine] T-Brock,” Harbaugh said after the victory. “I know I’m leaving somebody out, but they run down and cover kicks. They had a lot of opportunities to do it and they did a phenomenal job.”
And they do that job around two of the league’s best kickers.
Punter Andy Lee led the NFL during the regular season with a 50.9-yard average and a 46.6-yard net. The unit around him allowed returns on only 39 of 78 punts, limiting returners to an 8.1-yard average. Against the Saints, he pinned Drew Brees and their offense inside the 20 on five of his seven kicks.
Kicker David Akers led the league with an NFL-record 44 field goals.
The Niners’ kickoff coverage teams saw returns on 47 of 94 kickoffs, and held opponents to a 23.1-yard return average.
In fact, no opponent returned a kickoff more than 39 yards this season against a 49ers squad that takes pride in the usually frowned-upon assignments.
“They do it with an enthusiasm that’s second to none,” Akers said. “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 [special teams coordinator] Brad [Seely] develops.”
And these units work those schemes in a style all their own, swaying their way into kickoff coverages while Future’s “Tony Montana” echoes through Candlestick.
“We just have a party when we’re out there,” said Costanzo, voted a Pro Bowl alternate, who forced one fumble and recovered another against the Saints. “We have a great time and I think that’s the only way to play football, go out there and enjoy what you’re doing with love and passion for the game.”
Which comes easily for these 49ers.
Tim Liotta is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Examiner. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
20.8 Opponents average starting field position
11 Times all season an opponent started a drive in 49ers’ territory
50.9 Andy Lee’s average punt this season
44 Field goals by David Akers this season, an NFL record