Watch Out for Special Teams
by Mike Conklin
September 9, 2012
Opening day can be full of surprises.
Team statistician Mike Eayrs does studies on everything imaginable, and has estimated that about 25 percent of the looks the Packers see from an opponent in the first week are unscouted. That often makes for some interesting results in the opening weekend.
Another thing that often goes unnoticed is the role that special teams can play when the regular season begins. As much time and effort a team may invest on special teams during practice, there is no substitute for the speed and ferocity of these plays in live action. Some teams have struggled with this transition early in the season.
Last year, Randall Cobb made a big splash on to the national scene when he returned a kickoff 108 yards for a touchdown in the season opener against the Saints. It was a big moment in the game, and went a long way in determining the outcome of the contest.
Even though Cobb won "NFL Play of the Year" for his memorable moment, Ted Ginn Jr. did something even more impressive for the 49ers in their opener last season.
Ginn scored on both a kickoff return and a punt return, and accomplished both in the span of less than a minute for the first time in NFL history. Both returns came within the last five minutes as well, breaking the game wide open. The 49ers had been clinging to a two-point fourth quarter lead, but after Ginn put on that display the 49ers won going away.
The Packers and 49ers weren't the only teams in the NFL to have big special teams plays help determine the outcome of the games on opening weekend last year. Across the league, there were nine touchdowns on special teams in Week 1.
It is a dangerous time for coverage units. They are usually littered with some of the more inexperienced players on any given roster, and some of them don't get on the field that much other than when they play for the special teams units. Former players often attest to how much the speed and intensity of the game ratchets up as you go from preseason into the regular season. Last year's nine touchdowns during the league's opening weekend would seem to attest to that.
Every year, Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News ranks the special teams of all 32 NFL clubs, and his work in this category is generally considered to be the best. Gosselin rates the teams in 22 different categories and assigns points for their standings, and in the end he is able to come up with a composite score that gives a very good indicator of a team's performance.
Last year, the 49ers finished with the league's best special teams. They either led or shared the league lead in five categories, finished in the top 5 in six other categories and in the top 10 in one more category. In short, their special teams are among the league's elite.
They weren't always that way. When Jim Harbaugh took over the 49ers last year, he hired venerable special teams coach Brad Seely away from the Browns. Seely has led his unit to special teams success before, having won Gosselin's top honors with the Colts in 1993 and the Browns in 2009 before being ranked first again last year. The 49ers finished 17th the season before Seely arrived.
The Packers special teams under Shawn Slocum finished tied for 13th last year. It was an improvement over previous years, as the Packers finished 26th in 2008, 31st in 2009 and 29th in 2010. As the numbers indicate, it has not been a strength for the Packers in recent years, and if the trend continues the 49ers may have a distinct edge in this area.
The Packers are a good enough team that it is reasonable to expect that as long as there is not a major special teams gaffe, they should be in a good position to win most games. Although it may be too much to expect that Randall Cobb will spring big returns this week, securing the ball will be a priority. Cobb lost three fumbles last season on special teams, and he lost another during the preseason on an offensive play. Ball security has been a focus for him.
Ball security will be a focus for the 49ers as well. When Ted Ginn was lost to injury in last season's NFC Championship game, the 49ers backup returner Kyle Williams gave up two fumbles and the 49ers ended up losing by a field goal in overtime. It cost them a trip to the Super Bowl, and was a bitter pill to swallow for a team that hadn't lost a single turnover on special teams all season prior to that game.
While much of the focus this week has been upon the Packers offense and the 49ers defense, it may just be the special teams that play a major role in determining the outcome of today's game. The Packers will need to rise to the challenge against a solid 49ers unit.
Photo Credit: US Presswire