49ers vs. Cowboys: Special Teams Beyond Just More Return Touchdowns

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 11: Ted Ginn Jr. #19 of the San Francisco 49ers returns a kick off 103 yards for a touchdown againt the Seattle Seahawks in the fourth quarter of an NFL football game at Candlestick Park on September 11, 2011 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

In last week's victory the focus ended up being on Ted Ginn Jr. and his record day of punt and kick returns. He became the first 49ers player to return a punt and a kick for a touchdown in the same game. More importantly for the 49ers, both returns came in the fourth quarter when it seemed like the Seahawks might charge back into the game. They had cut the 49ers lead to two but Ginn took care of business with relative ease.

While those two touchdowns were game-breakers, the special teams battle began shaping up fairly early on. The 49ers played a fairly conservative style of offensive play in part because they had confidence in their defense and in part because they recognized their special teams superiority. While Coach Harbaugh might not have expected a career day from Andy Lee, he knew he had a fantastic punter. Additionally, he knew he had a solid kicker in David Akers, and a solid return man in Ted Ginn.

The 49ers dominated special teams to such a degree that they rank first in special teams DVOA while the Seattle Seahawks rank last. When using their DAVE projection to consider a combination of preseason projections and current performance, FO ranks the 49ers second.

On the other end of the spectrum, FO ranks the Cowboys 27th in DVOA and 25th in their Dave rankings. The Cowboys poor ranking comes primarily from poor marks in kick returns and in punting. The Jets didn't have any big punt returns but Cowboys kicker Mat McBriar did not have a monster day.

We've been talking about the 49ers key battles against DeMarcus Ware or their ability to contain Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. In reality, the 49ers best chance at springing an upset is if they can once again dominate the special teams battle.

I'm not anticipating touchdown returns from Ted Ginn every game, but he was third in the NFL in punt return average last season for a reason. If McBriar and the Cowboys are concerned about him, maybe we see more relatively short punts out of bounds. The 49ers still need to find ways to put the ball in the end zone, but strong starting field position makes that a whole lot easier. It seems like the more frequently you start in good field position, the more likely you are to eventually punch in some touchdowns.

Andy Lee versus the Cowboys punt returners could also prove important. The Cowboys averaged 9.7 yards per punt return, which may not be Ted Ginn spectacular, but is still a respectable number. The Cowboys rated out more or less in the middle of the pack with their punt returning while the 49ers ranked first in punts thanks to Lee's epic day. The 49ers don't need record-breaking days every game, but if they can continue to get consistently strong from Lee, they will be in good shape.

We'll be paying a lot of attention to the offensive and defensive side of the ball, but don't forget to keep an eye on special teams. The 49ers can't win this game without some offensive and defensive contributions, but a strong performance from Brady Seely's special teams unit could prove pivotal on Sunday.

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