Harbaugh Bowl: How Much Will Special Teams Play a Factor?

By Sean Rollins
Justin Tucker Baltimore Ravens
Stew Milne-US Presswire

It’s tough to tell whether or not special teams will play a factor in Super Bowl XLVII.  And if it does, it’s tough to tell who will have the advantage.  Both offenses have performed at a higher level in the postseason than they did in the regular season.  But while Baltimore’s defense has played slightly better during the postseason, San Francisco’s defense has been worse than the regular season.

The 49ers scored an average of 24.8 points a game during the regular season while the Ravens did slightly better scoring 24.9 points a game.  But in the postseason, both teams have improved dramatically.  The 49ers have averaged 36.5 points a game and the Ravens have followed scoring 30 points a game.  If this trend continues Sunday, a great deal of pressure could be put on the defenses and much less on special teams.

Both of these teams had very strong defenses in 2012.  The 49ers ranked second in the league during the regular season giving up just 17.1 points a game.  The Ravens tied for 12th in points conceded this season giving up 21.5.  However in the postseason the Ravens have been better while the 49ers have been worse.  While the 49ers have slipped to giving up 27.5 points a game, the Ravens have only given up 19 points a game this postseason and are coming a game where they gave up just 13 points to the most prolific offense in the league.

If the offenses play better than the defenses Sunday than special teams won’t have much of an impact on the game.  But if the defenses take control, special teams could have a great impact.  So if the defenses do play to the best of their ability, which team would have the advantage?  That’s another very tough question to answer.

Field position could be key in this game and both teams excel in that department.  Both punters are very strong with San Francisco’s Andy Lee averaging 48.1 yards per punt during the regular season and Baltimore’s Sam Koch just behind at 47.1.  During the postseason both have dropped slightly averaging just a yard less.

As for the returners of those punts, it could go either way.  During the regular season the Ravens ranked 16th in average yards per punt with 9.4.  The 49ers were slightly better at 10.5.  But in the postseason it’s been the Ravens with the better punt returning averaging 11.3 yards a return while the 49ers have dropped to 10.  If field position does end up being important, the team that returns punts better could have the advantage.

If the game is close and comes down to field goals, that’s where one team has a clear advantage over the other.  The Ravens decided not to bring back Billy Cundiff after he missed the game-tying kick in New England during last year’s AFC championship game.  His replacement is rookie Justin Tucker who has been superb.  Tucker hit 29 of his 31 field goals in the regular season or 90.9 percent of his kicks.  He’s 2 for 2 in the postseason including the game-winning kick of Denver in double overtime of the divisional game.

The 49ers felt confident in their kicking game this year bringing back a veteran who had a strong year last year and had a great track record prior to this year.  In 11 seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, David Akers never hit less than 70 percent of his kicks and only hit less than 75 percent once.  In 2004, a year that was very similar to last year, Akers kicked in the Super Bowl which gave the 49ers confidence if they got that far.  Last year Akers hit 44 of his 52 kicks and only missed one inside 40 yards but this year everything has gone wrong.  He has only hit 29 of his 42 kicks giving him one of the worst field goal percentages in the league.  He’s missed three kicks inside 40 yards this season which is unacceptable at this level.

If both defenses play the way they are capable of, special teams could decide Sunday night’s game and Baltimore’s kicking game would give them a huge advantage.  Even though Tucker’s just a rookie, he’s experienced the pressure of a game winning field goal in the postseason.  Meanwhile, while Akers has come through in the past, he’s struggled tremendously this season and even missed one of his two postseason field goal attempts.  These are two very evenly matched up team and if the game comes down to a final kick, it could get very interesting.

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