Last season one of the glaring weaknesses on an otherwise stout 49ers squad was the inconsistent and often excruciatingly poor level of play from the special teams unit. This season has been a 180-degree switch, as the special teams have been one of the better units in the entire NFL thus far.
John Lynch and the 49ers' front office acknowledged the shortcomings of last season and made it a priority to beef up their special teams by signing linebacker Oren Burks and safety George Odum in free agency, both of whom were among the league’s best on special teams in 2021.
So far ,that has paid immediate dividends as Odum and Burks currently lead the 49ers' special teams unit in tackles with three apiece. They have come in and done what they were brought in to do, and their impact has been felt across the coverage units as a whole.
Through three games, the 49ers kickoff coverage unit has held opponents to an average field position start of 22.7 yards. That is tied with Green Bay for the second-best mark in the entire league trailing only the Minnesota Vikings at 21.8 yards.
However, the excellence from the coverage team hasn’t been limited to just kickoffs, as the 49ers punt coverage unit has been one of the best in the league as well. Through three games this season, the 49ers have only allowed a grand total of six yards on opposing team's punt returns.
To add some context to that number, opposing teams have only attempted to return three out of the fourteen punts the 49ers have had this season. However, that is directly correlated to how good the coverage unit has been at getting downfield and limiting the opportunities to return these punts.
It also points to the brilliance of punter Mitch Wishnowsky, who has been on a tear since he signed a four-year contract extension earlier this month. Wishnowsky has been brilliant to start the 2022 season and has made a strong case to be put in the conversation as one of the best players at this position at this point in time.
Wishnowsky has punted 14 times this season, and eight of those punts have pinned opponents inside their own 20-yard line. Six of those eight punts have pinned their opponents inside their own 10-yard line, including one in Denver that pinned the Broncos offense inside their own one-yard line due to a tremendous play by the coverage unit.
Wishnowsky also has a claim to the longest punt by distance in the league this year, a 74-yard bomb that came off the foot of the Aussie in the 49ers' week three loss to the Broncos. Between Wishnowsky’s greatness and the coverage unit's excellence, the 49ers punt coverage unit allows just 2.0 yards per return, ranking second best in the league trailing only the Buffalo Bills.
Even the 49ers' return units have had notable success early on. As a free agent signing, Ray-Ray McCloud currently ranks second in the NFL with 86 punt return yards. McCloud was another off-season signing that appeared to be motivated by revamping the special teams unit, and so far, it is paying off.
Robbie Gould has been as Gould as ever, with the only blemish on his record this season so, being a blocked field goal attempt in a 27-7 win over the Seattle Seahawks. I’m far more inclined to give credit to the 6’4 cornerback who runs in the 4.3s for making a great play than I am to place any objectively fair blame on Gould or anyone else.
On another interesting note, Gould’s 51-yard field goal tied him with former 49ers kicker Phil Dawson for the 12th spot on the NFL’s all-time scoring list.
There is a long way to go this season, but early on, the 49ers have gotten a tangible return on investment on the off-season moves they made to reinforce what was the weakest link on the team last season.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that this 49ers offense is bound to get rolling at some point in spite of a sluggish start. Once that happens they are poised to be one of the most complete teams in all of football across all three phases of the game, which is only possible due to the special teams unit firing on all cylinders.