The Green Bay Packers will host the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday night with a trip to the NFC Championship Game on the line. SI.com team beat writers, Bill Huber of Packer Central and Grant Cohn of All Niners, get you ready for the big game with this series examining the matchups.
Packers on Special Teams
There’s no arguing with the numbers.
For more than four decades, Rick Gosselin – formerly of The Dallas Morning News and now with Sports Illustrated’s Talk of Fame Network – has published special teams rankings. He takes the rankings from 22 kicking-game categories and creates one composite ranking. The Packers finished 32nd. Football Outsiders uses its Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, which is adjusted for weather. The Packers finished 32nd in those rankings, too.
Green Bay under first-year coordinator was bad in the five key phases. The Packers finished 32nd in average starting field position following a kickoff, 26th in opponent starting field position after a kickoff, 20th in net punting average, 24th in opponent net punting average and 31st in field-goal accuracy.
Two missed kicks and a muffed punt might have cost them a winnable game at Kansas City with Jordan Love at quarterback. Two long punt returns, including one for a touchdown, put them on upset alert against Chicago.
But there was some incremental improvement down the stretch. Kicker Mason Crosby, who’s had a dreadful season that started with a bunch of problems with the operation before falling into his own slump, kicked better down the stretch. The punt-return unit, which did nothing at all for the past year-and-a-a-half, produced 20-plus-yard returns the past two games. The coverage units, while hardly leak-proof, have gotten a bit more sturdy now that some front-line players have joined those groups.
The predicted 12-degree weather at kickoff will be a factor. Not so much for Crosby, who has kicked a lot of field goals in cold-weather games, but for punter Corey Bojorquez and snapper Steven Wirtel. On a cold night against Minnesota a few weeks ago, Wirtel had a perfect snap but Bojorquez dropped the ball. Crosby made the kick, anyway, but that play shows the perils of shivering on the bench for 20 minutes and then getting one chance to deliver.
With all that, the key will be to not screw anything up. Make your kicks, tackle the 49ers’ returners. Catch and control the Niners’ kicks. Anything beyond that would be an added bonus.
49ers on Special Teams
When the 49ers lose, they generally lose either because Jimmy Garoppolo commits a turnover or special teams make a mistake.
Week 1, they failed to recover on onside kick in the fourth quarter, which allowed the Lions to drive the field and potentially tie a game the 49ers had dominated. The Lions ran out of time and the 49ers won.
Week 4, the 49ers fumbled a kickoff deep in their territory, the Seahawks recovered and the 49ers lost.
Week 12, the 49ers beat the Vikings despite giving up a kickoff return of a touchdown.
Week 13, the 49ers gave up a 73-yard touchdown run on a fake punt, plus they lost a fumble during a kickoff, and the Seahawks beat them for a second time.
And then last week in the wild-card round against the Cowboys, the 49ers overcame a roughing the punter penalty and another successful fake punt -- this one a pass to pick up a first down -- to win by six points.
When the 49ers’ special teams aren't making mistakes, they're giving up great field position, as opponents start their drives after kicks at the 27-yard line. Which means they have the second worst kickoff coverage in the NFL.
That's why Kyle Shanahan said this week his goal on special teams is merely to not lose the game.
The 49ers do have a good kicker, though. Robbie Gould made two field goals of 50-plus yards last week in Dallas. This week, the 49ers will play in the freezing cold, and his kicks won't travel as far, but he's reliable inside 45 yards. He made a lot of kicks in the cold in Chicago.
You can't call anyone else on this unit reliable.