A good offense and a stone walling defense are important to any team’s success, but an offense is toothless and a defense confused without the benefit of great coaching. Just as important, on both sides of the ball, is field position. That is where a fast, strong special teams comes in. Now that we are at the halfway point of the season, it’s time to grade these two key components and the overall play of the San Francisco 49ers.
The importance of kicking and punting is often understated in the NFL. However, without an advantage in field position, both the offense and defense would spend the entire game fighting out of a hole. Also, a kicker who has the ability to expand the redzone means points on the scoreboard, when the offense can’t come up with the big play. These reasons, to name a few, are why kicker David Akers and punter Andy Lee are a blessing for the San Francisco 49ers. David Akers ability to kick field goals seemingly from anywhere on the field, and drop kickoffs out of the back of the endzone, means more opportunities to score and fewer opportunities for opponents to return for big gains. Pro Bowler Andy Lee may be the best punter in the NFL, leading the league in 2011 in almost every punting category. Ted Ginn Jr. has returned the football well for the Niners, when he is on the field. Unfortunately, this dynamic return specialist, who is genuinely fun to watch, is injury prone and tends to be hurt late in the season. One area where the 49ers special teams definitely needs to improve is in coverage. The kicking and punting teams had a decent game against Arizona, but that was their best outing of the season. The coverage has been weak and has given up too many big returns.
Special Teams Grade: C
No one can deny that Jim Harbaugh earned his coach of the year award in 2011. In 2010 the San Francisco 49ers were an inexplicably poor team, they had the talent and the ability, but the coaching just wasn’t there.
By showing trust and confidence in his quarterback, and using a positive reinforcement coaching style, Harbaugh completely turned this team around. Bringing offensive coordinator Greg Roman, and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, with him when he left Stanford University to coach the Niners has proven to be an excellent decision. Roman has given the offense a much needed shot in the arm, and given Alex Smith his first-overall-pick swagger back.
Although at times the offense seems muddled as in the game against the Giants, overall the performance of Roman has been great. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has taken a defense that seemed like it had all the pieces for years without the results, and put those pieces together to form a powerhouse defense that stands atop the league.
In a short amount of time Fangio has taken a good defense and made them great. Special teams coach Brad Seely has made his special teams unit one of the most tight-knit in the league. Nicknamed the Tony Montana Squad, the special teams was lights out in 2011, but has had its issues in 2012, giving up some big plays on punt and kickoff returns.
Coaches Grade: A-
The San Francisco 49ers have had a difficult decade. Prior to 2011 their last post season appearance was in 2002 and it was a dismal effort. 49ers Faithful have waited patiently for the return of the Dynasty Years of the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, and finally they may be poised to make that dramatic comeback.
With an offense that has all the weapons, and a quarterback who protects the football and doesn’t make a lot of mistakes, the Niners have been able to strike and strike hard. Backing up the good offense is a defensive unit that is nothing short of extraordinary. With an uncanny ability to stop an opponent’s running game in its tracks, an excellent pass rush, and a capable pass coverage, the Niners defense is ready to take on any team at any time.
Excellent kicking and punting, with strong returning ability, keep the offense and defense in good field position against even the best teams.
Only small issues on offense, defense, and special teams, which are completely fixable, stop this team from being undefeated. Excellent coaching is the cornerstone of this team’s success over the last half season, and shows no signs that this dominating force in the NFC West will change its winning ways.
Overall Team Grade: A-