Part of the reason why the New Orleans Saints presented a challenge to the San Francisco 49ers was they took away one of the Niners’ biggest advantages all season: special teams. Then again, Brad Seely’s bunch recovered a kickoff that was fumbled by Courtney Roby and a fumbled punt by Darren Sproles … so okay, I guess they still had a pretty good advantage on special teams.
However, beyond those two plays — which require luck (talented players like Roby and Sproles coughing it up), then skill (Madieu Williams and Blake Costanzo forcing fumbles, Costanzo and Colin Jones recovering) — the Niners didn’t put together a demonstrably better special teams performance.
Here’s how I thought it would go:
Both teams are so good at kickoffs that unless a crazy wind develops tomorrow (it’s not supposed to, but Candlestick weather forecasts can never be guaranteed), the return games will probably be irrelevant unless an onside kick is called by either coach. These are also the No. 1 (49ers) and No. 2 (Saints) teams in terms of net punting average, so in other words Ted Ginn and Darren Sproles are probably going to have to make their contributions on offense if they want to rack up all-purpose yardage. If the 49ers have a real advantage in special teams, it’s when attempting field goals of 50 yards or longer.
Here’s how it went, in terms of kicks and punts:
– Four of Thomas Morstead’s six kickoffs were touchbacks. The 49ers’ average starting field position after kickoffs was their 20.5 yard line.
– Three of David Akers’ eight kickoffs were touchbacks. The Saints’ average starting field position was their 16.8 yard line (Tony Montana … Tony Montana … Tony Montana).
– John Kasay made the only field goal he tried, but it was a 48-yarder. Pretty good for a 42-year-old.
– Akers made a 25-yard field goal, a 37-yarder and a 41-yarder.
– Out of Morstead’s five punts, two landed inside the 20 and one was fair caught. Morstead had a net average of 39.6 yards.
– Lee punted eight times, with four landing inside the 20, one resulting in a fair catch. Lee’s net average: 43.4.
The fumbles made a huge difference, but the 49ers’ kicking superiority — usually a clear advantage — wasn’t the reason they advanced to the NFC Title Game. But against the Giants the Akers/Lee advantage could be much more noticeable, especially if it rains during the game.
That was then…
When these teams met back in November, the 49ers didn’t have much of a chance to do anything on returns. Steve Weatherford kicked two punts, one went out of bounds and the other was downed, for a 38.5 yard average per punt (net was the same). Three of Tynes’ five kickoffs were touchbacks, and the 49ers had a average starting field position at their own 20 after kickoffs. Tynes made field goals of 23 and 25 yards in the first half, so he wasn’t tested.
This is now…
Weatherford’s a decent punter, with a net average of 39.2 during the regular season. He isn’t as good as Morstead, and he definitely isn’t as good as Lee, but Lee’s First-Team All-Pro. With Ted Ginn probably out of action on Sunday with a knee injury, the 49ers probably can’t count on punt returns for massive gains in field position.
Tynes? There’s the possible huge advantage for the 49ers — and not just in comparison to Akers, who’s also First-Team All-Pro. Tynes weakness isn’t kickoffs, although he’s not a touchback machine like Morstead.
Tynes’ problem is field goals.
The Giants’ placekicker has made 8 of his last 12. Not great, but not the same sort of red flag David Shaw had in front of him when Jordan Williamson trudged out to try and lock down the Fiesta Bowl after connecting on only 2 of his 5 previous field goal attempts. Still, there’s a few things about Tynes’ performance this season that could make Tom Coughlin hesitant to run him out there, especially if the Candlestick turf is the consistency of Tiramisu.
1. Including a 3-for-4 effort in Green Bay, Tynes has connected on 6-of-8 FG attempts on grass this season. He’s 0-for-1 from 40+ yards. Not to say Tynes can’t kick on grass, just that he hasn’t done it much this year.
2. Tynes is 1-for-3 on 50+ yard field goal attempts — he made a 50-yarder at home against Green Bay on Dec. 4 (Akers is 7-for-9 from 50+).
3. Tynes is 3-for-6 from 40-49 yards (Akers is 7-for-11).
4. He’s 23-for-30 this season including the playoffs, but he’s missed a field goal in each of the last three games (Tynes missed a 32-yarder in Atlanta and had a 40-yard attempt blocked in Green Bay).
So while it’s possible Tynes could have a great day, rain or shine, the logical assumption is that his range is nowhere near Akers’. Tynes is liable to miss field goals from 30+ yards regardless of the weather. He once made a 47-yarder to win the NFC Championship in overtime at Lambeau … but that was four years ago.
The Giants are a cocky bunch and have relied on Tynes less than half as much as the 49ers have used Akers (who’s 47-for-55 on field goals after going 3-for-3 on Saturday). But if the NFC Championship Game is the kind of low-scoring grinder many expect, any and all points could prove valuable — even field goals. Without a trustworthy kicker, the Giants might be more apt to gamble on fourth down … and gambling against the 49ers’ defense has led to over 40 turnovers so far this season.