Over the course of the preseason, the 49ers offensive and defensive units have shown important signs of life. There have been some inconsistencies but improvement can be seen. The offense struggled to start the season but has moved the ball well the last two weeks. The defense started out strong but struggled a little in Week 3.
During this same time, the "special teams" has struggled mightily in covering returns. Each game has seen at least one return of 50+ yards, with the quality return game of Chicago just eating up the 49ers. Most of the 49ers problems have been on kickoff returns. Johnnie Lee Higgins had a punt return for a touchdown, but since then kickoffs have been the issue.
Danieal Manning - 171 return yards on 3 kickoff returns - Manning's numbers were a little screwy in the box score because they say he only had 2 returns - the third was actually his first return in which he received a lateral from Devin Hester.
In the first return the 49ers actually had him pretty well bottled up inside the 5 yard line and missed a pair of tackles. He proceeded to blow down the sideline for 60 yards before being forced out of bounds. His second return was simply blowing through some folks including a big missed tackle by Donald Strickland (he also missed what looked like an easy one in the first return) for 75 yards before Reggie Smith forced a fumble. His final return was close to being broken before Markus Curry took Manning down after 36 yards. Considering Manning is the backup returner to Hester that's not so good.
vs. Green Bay
Jordy Nelson - 114 yards on 2 returns - Nelson is listed as the THIRD TEAM returner for the Packers.
Nelson's first return for 56 yards saw him find the first seam thanks to a great Packer wedge. Allen Rossum had him around the legs but couldn't hold on and Nelson cut right before DJ Parker could make a move to tackle him. When he cut back, Parker had overpursued and couldn't get back. He was then almost horse collared before being spun around and getting 20 yards behind some more quality blocking.
His second return was for 58 yards and was thanks in large part to more great Packer blocking. Kicker Ricky Schmitt was actually the guy to force him out in both instances. I think this return was less 49ers problems and more quality Packer blocking.
My knowledge of special teams is rather limited. On replay I can see where the guy finds the seam and gets a good block, but I can't figure out much in terms of busted coverage. So, I got in touch with the Mile High Report University folks who have helped educate us in the past on matters of football.
Hoosierteacher, the man who gave us some insight on the Ted, is my go-to guy for football knowledge. He has done some coaching but he acknowledged in his email that his special teams knowledge is somewhat limited. I thought I'd throw up his thoughts anyways and if any of you have other insights to offer, please share them.
He suggested some possible problems include (and I'll address each in turn):
1. The team is so top heavy, that the guys playing on coverage teams are just really terrible players. (Well balanced teams with decent depth often do better in coverage)
Fooch: I'd say I don't buy this but the missed tackles I saw were usually youngsters that may or may not make the roster. DJ Parker was spun around by Jordy Nelson and Parker is not a guy expected to make the roster. However, guys like Donald Strickland will need to be making plays on special teams. Of course, if Spikes locks down the starting Ted spot, a special teams veteran in Jeff Ulbrich will be back doing what he does best.
2. Poor coaching.
Fooch: Considering the quality of the special teams last year and the lack of changes in the coaching ranks I'd say this wouldn't seem to be the reason.
3. Teams that don't emphasize speed in their systems may not have the speed in back-up players to do well in coverage.
Fooch: Not sure enough about the 49ers system to make any sort of informed comment on this.
4. If there is little hope for promotion to a starting offense or defense, motivation may be lacking with a ST.
Fooch: The starters are certainly getting more entrenched, but the 49ers coaching staff does not seem to have a problem with motivating players.
5. Poor tackling skills will wreck any coverage team or defense. Open field tackling is the norm in coverage, but it is ironic that the guys least likely to be good open field tacklers are the guys typicaly stuck on coverage.
Fooch: Maybe some of the newer young players need to work on their open field tackling?
6. Perhaps the opponents in a given year just have great return teams.
Fooch: The Bears are certainly a great return team, but it's usually Devin Hester and not Danieal Manning.
I honestly think the special teams coverage will get it together as the season gets here. When guys like Jeff Ulbrich and Michael Robinson are out there on special teams, I think the difference will be seen. Ulbrich has been spending his time competing for the Ted spot and Robinson is, of course, out with his knee injury. They're only two players, but they're two of our best special teams players. The special teams issues may carry over a week or two into the regular season, but I don't think this is a long term problem.
Are you convinced or am I delusional?