While other phases seek consistency, special teams gives 49ers stability

Long snapper Kyle Nelson's fumble recovery helped highlight a strong special teams performance against the Rams. Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- One of the San Francisco 49ers' newly-installed weekly traditions under coach Kyle Shanahan is to watch a compilation of various turnovers from around the league.

The point of the video is simple as Shanahan and his staff constantly emphasize that winning the turnover battle is often the most important statistic in determining a winner in every game.

So it was that before last week's 41-39 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, the Niners' turnover video included the very rare forced fumble and recovery by a long-snapper. While Shanahan couldn't remember who it was that made it happen, he seized the opportunity to call out his own long-snapper, Kyle Nelson.

"I was giving Kyle some grief, telling him that he needed to show us that this week," Shanahan said. "I told him I wasn't going to like him until he did."

Sure enough, there was Nelson in the second quarter running down on punt coverage and fighting his way through a number of Niners and Rams to emerge from the pile with the ball after Tavon Austin muffed a Bradley Pinion punt.

"I was kind of being sarcastic, but he ended up doing the exact thing, so it was pretty cool to see him do that," Shanahan said.

Shanahan went on to confirm that now he likes Nelson. Really, there's been no shortage of things for Shanahan to like about his special teams through the first three weeks. While the Niners have struggled to get consistency from the offense or defense in that trio of games, the one constant so far has been in the phase that generally attracts the least amount of attention.

But it's worth pointing out the strong work from coordinator Richard Hightower's special teams unit, especially after a preseason that left some nervous about what might happen in that phase.

"I think they have been playing very good," Shanahan said. "I think they have gotten better each week, too. I thought they played solid versus Carolina. I thought they did better versus Seattle and I thought they did even better [Thursday] night. I thought we've had some big challenges with [Carolina Panthers returner Christian] McCaffrey, [Seattle Seahawks returner Tyler] Lockett, and Tavon. So we've had some big challenges with the returners. None of them have really done much. And last night, not only did they make sure that those guys didn't affect the game, I thought they gave us a chance to win the game with the turnovers they got for us."

Indeed, an argument can be made that while the offense struggled mightily against the Seahawks and the defense floundered against the Rams, it was the special teams that kept the Niners in the game until the closing moments.

Against Seattle, 49ers kicker Robbie Gould made all three of his field goal tries, Pinion had a net average of 44 yards per punt, the punt coverage unit held Lockett to 0 return yards and rookie punt returner Trent Taylor averaged 13.3 yards per return.

For an encore, the group was even better against the Rams. In addition to Nelson's recovery, the Niners also recovered a fumble on a kickoff return, successfully executed a picture-perfect onside kick, prevented Austin from having any punt return yards and Gould again made both of his field goal attempts.

Although it's still a relative small sample size, the 49ers have had easily the best all-around special teams units in the league through three weeks. Their 17.3 expected points added from special teams is nearly double the next closest team.

"I think we have been playing great the last three weeks," Gould said. "I think it’s kind of been going under the radar. The guys have done a great job. Bradley has been punting awesome. He’s had two returners now that are Pro Bowl type returners and the guys are covering and they have no return yards. They’re doing a great job on kickoffs. The guys on punt, the return game have been doing really well."

Of course, even the Niners' best phase has had a hiccup or two. None of those were bigger than Gould's missed extra point against the Rams. That miss came back to haunt the 49ers when they scored late in the game and had to have a two-point conversion to tie it. To his credit, Gould stood up and explained his miscue after the game, saying he rushed the kick and hooked it left.

Still, it's hard to put too much blame on Gould, who has otherwise been perfect on six field goals and his three other extra point tries. Even after that miss, Gould believed he would get a chance to atone with a game-winning field goal.

"That’s the life of a kicker, you know?" Gould said. "You want that opportunity. It’s been a kick that I know what I did wrong. I can fix it. Obviously I don’t want it to happen but there’s no excuses for it, I missed and I rushed it. I have been hitting the ball great since I got here in April, so just was a little frustrating that kick at the time we needed it, I didn’t execute it."

Moving forward, it figures to be difficult for the Niners to continue to perform on special teams as they have in the first three weeks. At their current rate, they'd finish with 92.3 expected points added for the season, which would easily surpass the previous high of 76.82 posted by the 2009 Cleveland Browns since ESPN began tracking that stat in 2001.

In a more ideal world, the offense and defense will begin pulling more of the weight and help the 49ers put together the type of complete performance that will translate into their first win of the season.

"You can look at each game that way as this side of the ball there and this side of the ball there," Shanahan said. "You never know what it's going to take to win a game. Very rarely do all three phases play the best. And so, it doesn't totally matter to me, so I'll say to the team always I don't know if we have to win the game 2-0 with a safety or 50-48. It really doesn't matter, just as long as we find a way to win. And there's lots of ways to win games. You can do it defensively, you can do it offensively, and you can do it on special teams. Very rarely are all three going to play at the top of their game. And when they don't, someone else has got to step it up."

Someone like Nelson, who has instantly become a victim of his own success.

"Now he set a standard," Shanahan said, laughing. "Now he's got to do it every week."