49ers rewind: Special teams start off special

The 49ers' special teams were atrocious in the preseason with an abundance of botched plays and penalties. It made you wonder if highly-touted special teams coach Brad Seely was starting to lose his fastball. Not so – and not even close. Ted Ginn Jr. and the rest of Steely's units laid that issue to rest with their exceptional performance against the Seattle Seahawks in Sunday's season opener.

San Francisco's special teams issued a statement that they will be a force this season by putting their imprint all over a 33-17 trouncing of the defending NFC West champions which might not have happened without them.

Ginn's 268 return yards were the leading evidence these units could indeed be special for the 49ers in 2011.

Ginn sealed the victory after the Seahawks narrowed the score to 19-17 with 3:56 remaining. Ginn then took a kickoff return 102 yards for a touchdown. Fifty nine seconds later, he scored on a 55-yard punt return to punctuate coach Jim Harbaugh's winning debut with the 49ers.

This came after a preseason during which Ginn was out-performed as a kickoff returner by rookie Kendall Hunter. Some were surprised he was even used as the kickoff return man in the opener against Seattle.

"We weren't really even going to have him return the kicks," Harbaugh said Monday. "But we wanted a guy back there who's going to have a cool head and make good decisions. That was close to a game-day, day-before-game decision, to let him roll on the kickoff return. But glad we did."

Somehow, Seely knew better to use Ginn, despite Ginn's propensity to avoid contact on returns by heading straight to the sidelines.

"He can lose some yards," said safety Donte Whitner. "But with a great returner, you take the good with the bad."

Ginn was all good Sunday against the Seahawks. He became the first player in league history to return a punt return and kickoff return for touchdowns in a season opener. During his kickoff return, Ginn nearly was caught from behind, when he held the ball aloft while motoring down the sideline.

Ginn then spotted Seattle's speedy Earl Thomas chasing him on the big screen that's positioned right behind the north end zone, so he decided to tuck the ball away.

"I looked up at the Jumbotron and saw that there was a guy behind me," Ginn said. "I thought to put it across my arms and secure it across the goal line to make it be what it is – a touchdown to secure this victory for us."

Because of Ginn's vision, Seely instructed his blockers to wall defenders off to one side or the other. That strategy worked to perfection against the Seahawks.

"Our coach said just take a side on a guy and let (Ginn) read it," Whitner said. "What he sees, is where he goes; that's the way it is with all great returners."

On the kickoff return, Ginn started left and then cut right while the anxious Seahawks over-pursued. According to fellow receiver Joshua Morgan, what makes Ginn so good is his blazing speed.

"Ask his dad," Morgan said. "When he was born, he ran out of his mother. He ran a 4.1, for real."

Said tight end Delanie Walker, another special teams standout for the 49ers on Sunday, "I've never seen anything like that in the NFL so far. But we've got Ted Ginn, and I know he's capable of doing that. He says it all the time when we get in the huddle and say the play, ‘Hey, one block. And I'm going to do the rest. All I need is a couple of blocks and I will get in the end zone.' And you saw it. That kickoff return, he just did that all by himself. We just had to watch that man do it, because we can't catch up to him."

Ginn became the 12th player in league history to return a punt and a kickoff for scores in the same game. More importantly, future special teams coaches have to take him into account.

They already know about San Francisco's strong kicking specialists.

In his 49ers debut, veteran kicker David Akers was a perfect 7 for 7, making all four of his field-goal attempts and three PATs to set his opening-day career-high with 15 points.

Akers, the five-time Pro Bowler who is the NFL's leading scorer of the 21st century with 1,312 points over the past 11 seasons, leads all NFL kickers in scoring after Week 1 and is second in the league in scoring behind San Diego running back Mike Tolbert's 18 points.

Akers might not have been San Francisco's top kick performer against the Seahawks, however. He was outdone by punter Andy Lee, who had a career day with a 59.6 average on five punts with a phenomenal net average of 54.2.

The Niners also got strong play from their coverage units, which got a lot of work Sunday, with Walker leading the way with four tackles on those units.

"We look at special teams as a starting unit," Walker said. "If you're on special teams, you are starting. We start the game. We finish the game. (Seely) is really hard on us, we practice like an hour on special teams, and that's unusual. But it shows. It showed out there (Sunday) what special teams are capable of doing when you work hard.

"And then," Walker added, "Ted Ginn basically won the game for us. Those two big returns, it just set the game. We need that, and we're going to keep working hard on special teams, because special teams can win the game for you."


With such a bland preseason, many expected the 49ers to bedazzle with elaborate blitzes on defense and confusing shifts on offense. The 49ers stayed vanilla and fans even booed when Harbaugh called three straight runs and then settled for a field goal after getting a first-and-goal from the Seattle 8.

Upon further review on Monday, Harbaugh refused to categorize the approach as conservative.

"I don't know that we'd say that we were playing it safe," Harbaugh said. "We were playing to win at all times. And our guys stepped up and made big plays when we had to have them. I don't think we're safe. I think we're attacking and I think we're playing to win. That's what I live by."

Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's 3-4 system is known for it's attacking style, but on Sunday, Fangio hardly blitzed at all. Defensive end Ray McDonald said the coaches knew the Seahawks were going to max protect, so blitzing would just be a waste.

Harbaugh thought Fangio's approach worked just fine.

"Liked the way our team played defensively," he said, "liked the way we pressured with the stunts, the blitzes that we had. That's again part of scheme, are we a coverage team? Yes we're a coverage team. We're a rush-three, drop-eight. Are we a blitz team? Yes. We're a blitz team. We're a run-stopping team. We aim to be all of those things. You need to be good at them all."

Player notes

--- Veteran cornerback Shawntae Spencer barely played at all against the Seahakws, even when the defense went to their nickel and dime packages. It appears the team will stick with Tarell Brown as the starter at right cornerback for now. Spencer missed most of training camp and all of the preseason with a hamstring problem and didn't return to practice until the end of August.

--- WR Michael Crabtree got 13 snaps before his surgically repaired left foot started acting up. Coach Jim Harbaugh sat him down for the second half; postgame X-rays proved negative.

--- DT Ray McDonald had a monster game with a sack, three hits on the quarterback, three tackles behind the line of scrimmage and his first sack in two years. He also tied LB NaVorro Bowman for the team lead in tackles with six.

--- DT Justin Smith also had a big game in his 156th consecutive start dating back to his rookie season of 2001 with the Cincinnati Bengals. That streak ranks third among defensive players and fifth among all active NFL players. Smith had two sacks for the 11th multi-sack game of his career, and he also had three quarterback hits and two tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

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