While most of the attention this week is focused on how the team will look without Deebo Samuel and Fred Warner, another area of the 49ers has primarily escaped criticism: The special teams. In today’s Gold Standard Podcast, I looked at some of the problems that the 49ers have had in that area and how they could have a big impact on the team going forward.
Take yourself back to the fourth quarter of last week. The 49ers have an eight-point lead and are trying to salt away arguably their biggest game of the year. With about nine minutes left, Jimmy Garoppolo and company get the ball and begin a drive that will go 72 yards in 12 plays and take up a little over seven minutes of game time. The offense takes the clock all the way down to the two-minute warning and sets Robbie Gould up for a 42-yard field goal that would all but put the game away.
Instead of being up by multiple scores with less than two minutes remaining against an opponent with no timeouts, the 49ers' defense is now in a do-or-die situation against one of the best late-game offenses in the entire NFL this season.
That’s what happens when the special team unit lets you down. And if it were just that one mistake, it would be more understandable. However, that was far from the only special teams' blunder on Sunday.
- Multiple PATs were nearly blocked.
- After scoring the tying touchdown 18 seconds left in the first half, the 49ers allowed a 30-yard kick return that set the Vikings up at the 40-yard line with all three timeouts.
- Robbie Gould’s 46-yard field goal to make it an 11 point game at 31-20 barely goes through after hitting the upright.
- Immediately after that, the 49ers allow a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that makes it a one-score game once again.
It’s easy to wave some of these away because of how the game turned out, but that would be whistling past the graveyard. These are errors the 49ers simply cannot continue to make in close games down the stretch of the season. The margin for error for this team is incredibly small, and things like this can make the difference between a win and a loss.
Unfortunately, the problems on special teams extend beyond last week’s game. So far this year, the 49ers are 28th in opponent kick return yards allowed and 20th in special teams DVOA. While Gould has only missed two kicks so far this season, he’s also missed almost a quarter of the year due to injury. The truth is that Gould is the oldest kicker in the league, and his play has been declining for quite some time. Coming into 2021, he had made less than 78% of his field goals over the last two seasons.
If the 49ers are going to continue their winning streak, get into the playoffs, and make a deep January run, they’re going to have to do the little things right. While the problems on offense and defense have been significantly addressed recently, special teams continue to be an area of concern. Here’s hoping they can right that ship before it sinks their season.
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