Special on Special Teams

The San Francisco 49ers special teams units have played a signature role since Jim Harbaugh brought in Brad Seely when he started in 2011. This season, a new cast of characters have contributed in a big way, even if they fall below the radar at times.

The San Francisco 49ers needed every point they could get when they went against the Seahawks and the league's best defense.

In winning 19-17, they got four field goals from Phil Dawson and a key blocked punt from newcomer Kassim Osgood that went a long way toward deciding the outcome of the key divisional game.

"They've been playing extremely well," Jim Harbaugh said Monday after reviewing the film from the win. "Been on a roll...consistently good every week making plays."

The 49ers coverage units have been in unison with the league's fourth-ranked defense, helping the team become one of the NFL's best at winning the battle of field position each week.

The most simplistic way to quantify the effect of special teams is to look at the team's starting field position along with their opponents'. In both areas, the 49ers are near the top of the league.

San Francisco's average starting fielding positions is their 31.2 yard line, second behind the Kansas City Chiefs (32.8). Their opponents start at their 26.1 - seventh-best in the league.

Combining those two numbers gives the 49ers a net advantage of 5.1 yards on field position alone, which is the second highest number in the NFL.

Part of that success has come from the production of a number of new faces. Three of those players stepped to the forefront in the win on Sunday. Bubba Ventrone (three tackles), Osgood (two tackles and the blocked punt) and Dawson (responsible for 12 of the team's 19 points, including a 52-yard field goal) are all having standout years since coming to San Francisco in the offseason.

"Those guys really shined," Harbaugh said.

But as good as the special teams have been over the last two seasons, they let them down in a big way in the Super Bowl when Jacoby Jones housed the opening kickoff of the second half. Kicker David Akers, who was bailed out by a running-into-the-kicker penalty after missing a 39-yard field goal in the third quarter, hit a career-low 69 percent of his tries last season.

With that in mind, was improving an already-sound special teams corps an emphasis this offseason?

"I think it's every year, you look at your roster and you say ‘where can you get better?'" special teams coordinator Brad Seely said. "I think we can get better at all those areas. So I think that's why there's always turnover on your football team because you're always thinking you're going to improve."

Without outstanding play from their special teams Sunday, the 49ers might not have pulled out the two-point victory.

Seely coached Dawson during his two seasons with the Cleveland Browns in 2009 and 2010. When he coached in New England, he scouted Ventrone's tape while at Villanova and marveled at how he was routinely 10-yards further down the field than his teammates on kickoff coverage before signing him as an undrafted free agent. He coached Osgood on special teams in the 2006 Pro Bowl.

"I just loved (Osgood's) attitude," Seely said. "He's one of those guys that just comes out every day, having fun, enjoying what he does and appreciates the opportunity that he has. He takes full advantage of it, he works his butt off out here on the football field and another guy that I like being around."

"Attitude" has become a staple of the kick off team. The signature sounds of "Tony Montana" that ring throughout Candlestick when they take the field gives gets the team and the crowd going. It all contributes to the "pizzazz" Harbaugh noted earlier in the week.

"I think guys have that. Because what they do is so different. And it's kind of out there. You got to be a little out there to do those things that they do. Huge collisions are out there on the field. So you got to have a little something else about you," said Seely.

Dawson set a franchise record Sunday by hitting 20-straight field goals, edging Joe Nendy's 18 in a row starting in 2006 and lasting into 2007.

After spending the previous 14 seasons with the Cleveland Browns dealing with some of the league's harshest kicking conditions, the decision to come to San Francisco was an easy one once he knew the team was interested.

"When I found out that San Francisco was an option, that became my focus really quick," Dawson said.

His two season's worth of familiarity with Seely was definitely a contributing factor.

"My concern was how would I react in a new environment where I'm not very comfortable. Kind of my personality, I do my best where I'm comfortable. Obviously I respect coach Seely and his ability to teach special teams. But knowing the man and knowing what to expect brought a level of comfort to make this attractive," Dawson said.

"They didn't have much success as a team so you didn't ever hear much about him," Seely said of his kicker. "He's been probably the best player on that team in Cleveland for a long time."

Osgood's blocked punt Sunday was critical. It led to Dawson's 48-yard field goal in the first quarter, aiding the two-point win as the offense battled the Seahawks' vaunted defense.

"There had been a hole on the left side of their protection during the prior two punts," Osgood said. "So I went to the sideline and told coach Seely that we potential to pressure the gap and get a block. He said if it's there, then go ahead and take it."

While the 49ers' offense continues to gain traction after struggling for most of the season against some of the league's better defenses, field position will be critical for the rest of the season and the playoffs.

Sunday's win was a prime example.


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