Usually, when the special teams takes the field, it’s a time to go to the bathroom or run to the refrigerator to grab a snack if you’re at home watching the game — unless it’s the 49ers.
Give Robbie Gould credit. He made all five of his kicks, including two field goals over 50 yards. That’s difficult to do in the playoffs, especially on the road.
That’s where the good news ends. Mitch Wishnowsky punted the ball four times for an average of 44.8 yards. He had a couple that was right down the middle of the field. It didn’t hurt San Francisco Sunday, but that’s a terrible process to live by.
JaMycal Hasty continues to flounder as a kick returner. He averaged 14.5 yards per kick return. For reference, Tony Pollard averaged 25 yards per return for Dallas.
The final drive for the Cowboys is irrelevant had the Niners been prepared for a fake punt on fourth down that everyone but the special teams unit knew was coming. Multiple fans on Twitter and a couple in the press box said, “Oh, watch the fake here.”
Think about the context of the situation. It’s 23-10 in the fourth quarter, and Dallas had struggled to slow down the 49ers all afternoon. It’s 4th & 5 on the Cowboys’ 48-yard line. The fake was almost too obvious to run. Sure enough, a pass was completed for 16 yards. I’m not sure who is to blame between special teams coach Richard Hightower or cornerback Josh Norman. Either way, it’s unacceptable.
Fortunately for San Francisco, their defense had been playing lights out, and they held Dallas to a 51-yard field goal. That’s not happening against Aaron Rodgers.
Out of halftime, Arik Armstead sacks Dak Prescott on 3rd & 14, and the 49ers have a chance for a short field. A touchdown here all but ices the game. Instead, Mark Nzeocha roughs the kicker, giving Dallas a first down.
The Cowboys didn’t score, but that’s not the point. They wound up picking up two first downs and flipping the field. So, instead of starting anywhere from the 40-yard line or better, the Niners began their drive on their 7-yard line and wouldn’t cross the 40.
It boggles my mind how poorly this team can be on special teams when you consider how dominant they are on defense and explosive they can be on offense.
49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan spoke about the third phase of the game and where the Niners special teams stand in his mind:
“For one, I always feel that way on special teams. My number one goal is to not lose on special teams. It means I’m not just going into games trying to dictate the flow games through fakes. I usually want depend on offense, but special teams, the starting point is to not lose it, to not turn the ball over, to make sure we get the ball back. So, that’s not just because of now.
But yesterday with the special teams, those two plays were huge. Our defense rebounded huge on it, but it did cost us three points on one, on the fake punt. The way we started out that second half, having them backed up. [WR] River [Cracraft] and [LB Mark] Nzeocha, Nzeocha got here two weeks ago, River got off the practice squad about a month ago, and they both have been helping us out a ton on special teams.
They’re two of the guys that have made us improve here over the last month, but they got a little too overzealous trying to block that punt and made a huge mistake. And fortunately, our D went three-and-out after it, but you give a team opportunities like that, it makes it tough to protect that lead like we had. And that would be something that would be very hard to get away with going into Lambeau.”
The 49ers finished the season 29th in weighted DVOA when it comes to special teams. What we saw Sunday wasn’t a one-off example. It was a recurring theme.