Despite Win in Week 13, 49ers Special Teams Still a Concern


The San Francisco 49ers pulled out a victory in overtime against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field, 26-20. It was refreshing to finally see quarterback Blaine Gabbert throw a ball past the first-down line in finding wide receiver Torrey Smith for the game-winning 71-yard touchdown.

The 49ers offense did enough (291 total yards, 170 passing and 121 rushing) and the defense made some key plays, namely the pick-six by safety Jimmie Ward, who jumped Bears QB Jay Cutler’s screen pass, for his first career interception and TD.

“It’s incredible these two blunders didn’t cost San Francisco the win.” – CBS Sacramento

The unit that struggled, and almost cost the 49ers the game, was the special teams. The Bears ran a punt back for a TD only to luckily be called back for a hold on the return. Then kicker Phil Dawson had his first extra point blocked of the season.

Punt returner Bruce Ellington did nothing on his three punt returns, fair catching two of them when he was wide-open and returning the other one for a grand total of one yard.

His performance was better on kick returns (four returns for 98 yards with a long of 40). There was the “disagreement” between special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey and head coach Jim Tomsula about how much rope Ellington has left as the return man, per Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle:

“You put the ball on the ground again, yeah,” McGaughey said via Branch. “That’s just the reality of what we do. You look at the kid at New England last week, he doesn’t have a job. If Bruce was standing right here next to me, I’d say the same thing. It’s no different. You’ve got to take care of the ball. Everybody’s got a job to do, do your job.”

However, Tomsula disagreed with McGaughey’s assessment:

“I hope he didn’t say that,” Tomsula said via Branch. “I would not want him to have said that. I’m sure he didn’t say it like that.”

The difference of opinion here is a little surprising. Does Tomsula not have the pulse of his special teams coordinator? Why does he feel different? Why is his rope longer than McGaughey’s in Ellington’s recent performances? What else does he need to see before he will make a change?

Weird, right?

Oscar of BetterRivals also sees Ellington’s recent poor performances and doesn’t see why Ellington is still returning punts either:

It has got to the ridiculous stage that Ellington is returning punts. He has yet to show any real talent returning punts (he has more muffs and fair catches than yards it seems like). The bottom line is that he can’t make the first tackler miss, and he just does not have a sideways move to avoid the first tackler.

You just can’t have someone returning punts who just runs into the first guy he sees. It’s worthless. Per Pro Football Reference, Ellington has returned 11 punts this season for a total of 61 yards at an average of 5.5 yards per return.

That is pathetic. It really is. It’s time for a change.

It may be my Australian bias, but Jarryd Hayne needs to be put back on the roster to return punts. Indeed, he had some fumbles during his time in the role, most likely due to nerves and trying to do too much. With the last few weeks he has spent on the practice squad, he has had time to review film, practice more returns and make the necessary mental adjustments.

Hayne, with his rugby league background, has been trained to miss tacklers, not just run into them. He flashed the ability to return punts during the pre-season, so it is not a talent issue. He just needs time in the role and more returns to improve.

What do the 49ers have to lose at this point? They have a record of 4-8. There are four games left in the regular season. When is a better time to give Hayne the role?

Wait until next season?

No! Do it now!

It’s easy to find him a roster spot — running back Carlos Hyde is still not practicing from his fractured foot and, with the four games left, there is zero reason to put him back on the field. Place him on injured reserve, bring Hayne back to the 53-man roster and tell him to go out there and return punts with abandon. Ellington can still be used on kickoffs and the occasional play on the offense.

When the game was late in the fourth quarter (1:20 left in regulation), and after the 49ers tied the game on Gabbert’s 44-yard TD run, the 49ers special teams bombed again allowing a 74-yard kickoff return to the Bears’ Deonte Thompson which set up the Bears offense in field goal range right off the bat.

Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area had a good description of this play:

"The 49ers’ special teams nearly blew it at the end of regulation when Bears return man Deonte Thompson found a huge lane where Travaris Cadet and Marcus Cromartie were blocked out of the play."

Fortunately for the 49ers, after the Bears ran down the clock to two seconds, the Bears kicker Robbie Gould muffed the game-winning 36-yard FG wide left to send the game to OT.

The good fortune cannot be overlooked. McGaughey has a problem with kick coverage. The two long returns that his unit allowed were almost game killers. This cannot be allowed to happen again.

CBS Sacramento mentioned the special teams blunders when they gave them a grade of “C”.

The only real positive of the special teams was the performance of punter Bradley Pinion, who as Maiocco points out, had nine punts for a 48.1 yard average per punt, including a career-high 62 yard boomer.

Whether it was a genie or just good luck that saved the 49ers from a loss, it’s not realistic to expect to have a repeat of this good fortune. The basics of taking the right angles on returns needs to be drilled into the special teams’ players this week.

Next: San Francisco 49ers: 10 Young Linchpin Players to Watch over Rest of 2015 Season

It is time for the special teams unit to catch up to the progress that the 49ers offense and defense units are making. Poor kick coverage is unacceptable. Having Ellington continuing to return punts with his 5.5 yards per return average is also unacceptable.

The best options for improving the special teams performance are simple — going back to basics and elevating Hayne back to the punt returner role. There is no good reason to let him keep languishing on the practice squad where he cannot get valuable game experience.