In Jim Harbaugh’s now-famous postgame lockerroom celebration following the 49ers’ victory over the Lions, the first-year San Francisco head coach declared, “There’s something special about this team, something special.”
He meant, of course, that the 49ers were coming together as a team to win five of their first six games.
But special also is the perfect word for San Francisco’s special teams.
While the 49ers’ defense has been exemplary and the offense clutch (if not spectacular), the team’s special teams rank among the best the NFL.
As Vince Verhei, one of ESPN’s football outsiders, wrote this season: “The 49ers have mastered the three steps of winning with smashmouth football: turnovers, run defense and special teams.”
Perhaps one of the Niners’ best off-season acquisitions was Brad Seely, hired in January as special teams coordinator/assistant head coach.
Seely has 22 years of coaching experience in the NFL and has been particularly adept in coaching special teams. He was the NFL’s Special Teams Coach of the Year for the Browns in 2009, and before that was part of the New England staff that coached the Patriots to three Super Bowl titles. During his tenure in New England, the Patriots special teams were among the best in the NFL and returned 11 kicks for TDs, tied for second in the league during that span.
In September, an article in Pro Football Weekly suggested the hiring of Seely was perhaps the team’s best off-season move. In the article, Harbaugh said: “It’s outstanding the way he gets his point across and teaches the game. Not just special teams, but broader – tackling, leverage and angles. It’s really, really good.”
Among the 49ers’ special achievements this season are:
David Akers: The free-agent kicker has been outstanding, hitting 13 of 15 field-goal attempts, including three from 50 or more yards. He also leads the NFL with 22 touchbacks on kickoffs.
Andy Lee: The veteran, in his eighth season in San Francisco, has the best net average (44.4 yards) and gross average (50.5) of his career.
Ted Ginn: His two returns for TDs in the opening-game victory over Seattle set the tone for the season. He’s returned 13 kickoffs for a 31.8 yard average and 20 punts for a 13.7 yard average.
Kickoff returns: The 49ers rank No. 1 in average yards per return at 30.9.
Punt returns: The team ranks No. 5, with 13.7 yards per return.
Kickoff team: San Francisco is giving up just 21.3 yards per kickoff, which ranks sixth-best in the league.
On Sunday, Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group, noted Harbaugh has paid much attention to the performance of his special teams units.
“(When) the kicker, punter, long snapper (are) sitting there eating lunch, you’re usually kind of by yourselves sometimes,” Lee told Inman. “But (Harbaugh will) sit down, talk with you, talk about your families, things other than football.”
Long snapper Brian Jennings in September said he’s learned much since Seely became special teams coach.
“I love everything about special teams and he’s been coaching it at a very high level for a very long time and I want to see why,” Jennings told reporters. “I’m so lucky to have the opportunity to sit in those meeting rooms and figure out what he’s doing that helps his teams dominate.”