They say you’re only as good as your weakest link. For the San Francisco 49ers, that weak link was their special teams unit.
If you somehow hadn’t watched Super Bowl XLVII and were learning the Niners had lost to the Baltimore Ravens by a score of 34-31, I’m pretty confident you would’ve felt kicker David Akers must be at least partly to blame for the loss. While that was certainly the case on numerous occasions this season, it wasn’t on Super Bowl Sunday.
The 49ers made several crucial mistakes that cost them the Harbaugh Bowl, but perhaps none bigger than allowing Jacoby Jones to run a kick back 108 yards (a Super Bowl record) into the end zone to start the second half. For a team already down 21-6 at halftime, this proved to be quite a significant blow.
So how did a team once known a year ago for near-perfect special teams coverage commit such a costly mistake? It was simply and purely a lack of focus.
Jones fielded Akers’ kickoff so deep in the end zone that he was likely the only one in the Superdome who expected to see it brought out. The Niners kickoff coverage sure wasn’t expecting it, each player allowing himself to be absorbed by blocks while lackadaisically waiting for a whistle to signal the conclusion of the play.
Just as they had against the Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers in weeks prior, the 49ers dominated their opposition in the second half, outscoring the Ravens 25-13. Baltimore looked tired, possibly even phased by the delay that ensued when half of the lights went out in the building.
But, for as close as the end of the game turned out to be, coming back from a 28-6 third-quarter deficit is just not a reasonable expectation. Jim Harbaugh and the coaching staff’s late-game play-calling deserves some criticism, and the officials weren’t exactly on point, either. But neither of those obstacles are as challenging to overcome than an instant seven-point swing directly after a fiery halftime comeback speech.
Furthermore, All-Pro punter Andy Lee and his kicking leg just didn’t have it going. In only three attempts, he failed to give the 49ers a solid advantage in field position twice. On the possession after Jones’ TD return, the Niners were forced to punt from their own 46-yard line. Instead of placing the pigskin inside the 20-yard line with ease (a near certainty with this guy), Lee sailed it into the end zone.
The 49ers’ defense did what it always does and held the Ravens’ offense out of the end zone in the second half. SF’s offense put up averaged a whopping 7.8 yards per play in the game and accounted for 29 of the 31 points the Red and Gold put on the board.
But, when it came down to it, the Niners fell short in the third and most forgotten phase of the game: Special teams. Was it the absolute difference-maker in the game? That will be hotly debated for years to come, but the answer to the question of whether or not the 49ers’ special teams unit held them back in Super Bowl XLVII is a definitive yes.