The 49ers lost their Week 13 game against the Seahawks for many reasons, but special teams proved to be one of the costliest elements.
Can anyone truly recall the last time the San Francisco 49ers boasted at least a modestly good special teams unit?
Perhaps it was back in 2017 when the Niners were among the league’s best in fewest punt-return yards, or perhaps it was in 2018 when kicker Robbie Gould led the NFL with a 97.1 field-goal percentage.
On a consistent basis, though, San Francisco’s special teams haven’t been wholly good and consistent during the entire duration of head coach Kyle Shanahan’s tenure, lending some serious criticism against special teams coordinator Richard Hightower, the assistant Shanahan has trusted with the role since 2017.
Granted, the fluctuations at the back end of the roster make special teams success a difficult thing to transition over on a year-to-year basis, outside of the specialists, yet 2021 is shaping up to be a near disaster for this overlooked-yet-critical third phase of the game.
Week 13 loss to Seahawks a microcosm of 49ers’ special teams woes
On the opening play of the game, the Niners lost their primary kick-return specialist, running back Trent Cannon, to a scary concussion, resulting in him being trucked off the field in an ambulance.
San Francisco’s inability to truly identify a quality returner was only highlighted more by depth wide receiver Travis Benjamin fumbling a kickoff later in the game, which ultimately developed into a back-and-forth sway of events that somehow resulted in quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo being sacked in the end zone for a safety.
That wasn’t the biggest play of the day related to special teams, though, as a desperate Hawks team pulled off the unthinkable, a 73-yard fake punt on their opening possession for a touchdown:
If that wasn’t bad enough (it was), the 49ers’ kickoff coverage units allowed an average of 24.7 yards on six returns with primary Seattle returner DeeJay Dallas boasting a long of 33 yards.
Not ideal and proof again why special teams won’t necessarily win games, but it can certainly lose one. Or many.
2021 data and analytics reveal how bad 49ers special teams has been
Just like anything else, one game doesn’t tell the entire story. For the Niners, though, what happened in Week 13 has been a notable trend for much of the year.
First, let’s dive into the traditional data.
San Francisco has successfully converted 81.8 percent of its field-goal tries, which is tied for only 19th in the league after 13 weeks. Gould hasn’t always been in the picture, but he has missed two of his 13 tries this season, along with one extra point, and the 49ers have an 87.9-percent mark there (tied for 24th).
But special teams goes beyond making field goals and extra points. In some ways, it’s all about field position, and the following stats reveal just how problematic this part of the game has been for Hightower and Co.:
- Kickoff average: 62.8 yards (21st)
- Punt average: 46.4 yards (13th)
- Kickoff return-yards against average: 24.1 (23rd)
- Punt return-yards against average: 4.9 (second)
- 49ers average starting field position: Own 27.4-yard line (24th)
- Opponent average starting field position: Opposing 29.1-yard line (20th)
Aside from performing well in punt coverage (way to go, Mitch Wishnowsky), the Niners are generally having a tough time ensuring opposing offenses start deep in their own territory. Simultaneously, San Francisco isn’t getting ideal starting field position either.
Pro Football Focus ranks 49ers special teams awfully low
PFF data and grades are far from perfect, and anyone who uses their metrics as a sole determining factor isn’t looking at the entire picture.
But the above stats suggest PFF is spot on with this one, as they list the 49ers’ special teams group No. 24 in the league after Week 13 with an overall unit grade of 73.2.
Interestingly enough, PFF ranks the Niners offense and defense fourth and ninth, respectively, giving some ammunition to those who’d argue special teams is turning into the team’s biggest liability this season.
Football Outsiders DVOA isn’t flattering of 49ers either
Football Outsiders’ DVOA (defensive value over average) metric is often a good tool at comparing and contrasting PFF data, yet it shouldn’t shock anyone that San Francisco’s DVOA on special teams isn’t particularly impressive.
Currently, the 49ers boast a special teams DVOA of minus-0.7, which ranks 20th in the league, and this suggests the Niners are almost a full percentage point below average in terms of what Football Outsiders phrases as a cumulative measurement of “field goals (and extra points), net punting, punt returns, net kickoffs, and kick returns.”
No matter how one jumps into it, San Francisco has been bad here.
And it doesn’t look as if there’ll be massive changes this season, meaning Hightower and Co. are likely to finish in the bottom third of this key phase of the game.