Akers perfect for 49ers as he makes Philly return
If the season continues like this, the 49ers offense will owe a large debt of gratitude to San Francisco’s special teams, if it doesn’t already. The 49ers are off to a 2-1 start and are alone in first place in the NFC West, and yet their offense is ranked last in the league in offensive yards, last in sacks allowed per pass play and second-to-last in yards per rushing attempt.
Conversely, San Francisco ranks first in the NFL in kickoff return average and first in net punting average.
To put it rather bluntly, the 49ers’ special teams are making up for their woeful offense.
And those specialty units are making first-year special teams coordinator Brad Seely proud, even if he doesn't want to talk about it. Yet.
Fittingly for this week, the special teams are led by former Eagles kicker David Akers, who went to five Pro Bowls in Philadelphia and might have some wisdom to impart about Lincoln Field when the 49ers meet the Eagles on Sunday afternoon.
To be sure, the Eagles know all about Akers, who signed as a free agent with the 49ers this summer after spending 12 seasons with Philadelphia.
"(The decision to not re-sign Akers) was tough, but unfortunately it's part of the game," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "I have the highest regard for David Akers. You're talking about the greatest kicker in Eagles history. Really, I mean that's probably a slam dunk. And the guy, he's a great person and he did a tremendous amount in the community and I'm sure he'll be welcomed back with open arms. When you're together for 12 years like he and I were, then you develop a relationship there, and I hold he and his wife and his family in the highest regard."
The 49ers are starting to hold Akers in pretty high regard, too.
Akers has played a big part in the 49ers' special teams making a huge difference in both the team's wins. Return man Ted Ginn Jr. took a kickoff and a punt for long touchdown returns in the fourth quarter of San Francisco’s 33-17 opening-day victory over Seattle.
Two weeks later, Akers' clutch 53-yard field goal provided the 49ers with a commanding 13-6 advantage with 2:16 remaining in their 13-8 win at Cincinnati. The kick was risky; if Akers missed, the Bengals would have gotten the ball at their own 43.
But coach Jim Harbaugh has placed immense confidence in his special teams. And he should.
The 49ers devote more than an hour to special teams in a standard practice, which is unusual. They also have two players, linebacker Blake Costanzo and safety C.J. Spillman, who are almost exclusive special teams' core players.
Along with Ginn, a top return specialist, the 49ers have loads of talent at key positions, with Akers, punter Andy Lee and long snapper Brian Jennings. The latter three have all been to the Pro Bowl.
Putting it all together is Seely, a veteran coach who oversaw the Patriots' Super Bowl-winning units.
Seely is also the assistant head coach and is never more than an arm's length away from Harbaugh on the sidelines and they commiserate often.
Seely's moniker of "professor" has also snaked its way from the coach's offices upstairs to the locker room.
"He's very clear with what he says," Jennings said. "He doesn't leave anything to chance."
Seely has also struck the delicate balance between providing a complete game plan each week without overloading his players with too much scheme. Most special teams players also have to master an offensive or defensive game plan.
For example, on punt returns, Seely doesn't set up an elaborate plan. He simply tells his blockers to direct the opposition to the left or right, whatever is easiest, and then let Ginn read his blockers and use his speed.
That's exactly what Ginn did in his 55-yard return for a touchdown against the Seahawks. Ginn veered left, then saw the Seahawks over-pursue. He cut right and got a seal block from safety Colin Jones. All Ginn had to do from there was out-race the punter. No contest.
Seely not only benefits from Ginn's talents but also those of Jennings, Akers and Lee.
Jennings employs a highly unorthodox grip on all his snaps which has led to freakish consistency. Now in his 12th year, Jennings only has one fumble to his credit and that occurred when the holder dropped the ball.
Akers signed as a free agent in the off-season. The 36-year-old is an accomplished black belt and keeps himself in pristine condition, which might be the reason for his 55-yarder at Candlestick (a stadium record) and his soaring 53-yarder in Cincinnati. Both cleared the cross bar by at least 10 yards.
Lee's 59.6 yards per punt average against Seattle was the highest since Detroit's Bob Cifers averaged 61.75 against Houston in November of 1946.
Lee shanked a 14-yarder against the Bengals and still averaged 45.7 yards per punt. Lee has always had a strong leg, but nothing like this.
"I don't know what it is, I can't explain it," he said.
Seely is more than happy leaving his units' exploits completely unexplained. He has turned down several requests for interviews saying that he wants to wait until his units become more established before speaking.
Maybe he thinks by talking about his special teams, he'll jinx them. And if the early season is any indication, the 49ers need their special teams more than ever, particularly this week against the Eagles.