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49ers' coverage units are special once again

Published: Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1C

LONDON – "Like an arrow going through snow."

That's how 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh described rookie cornerback Darryl Morris' dash toward a Titans punt returner last week, which prompted a muff and a fumble recovery in the end zone. The fourth-quarter touchdown was San Francisco's final score and snuffed out a late rally by Tennessee.

The quote – which Harbaugh later admitted was lifted from his brother, Ravens coach John Harbaugh – aptly described Morris' remarkable speed. But it also was a fitting image for the calm, cool personality of this year's special-teams coverage units, which, as the 49ers hit the midpoint of the season against the Jaguars today, have begun to approach the level of the team's celebrated 2011 group.

Those units were marked by the gregarious personality of special-teams captain Blake Costanzo. The rest of the players naturally gravitated toward him, imitated him and were rallied by him. They bounced up and down to rap music before every kickoff and were one of the league's best.

This year's version?

"It's quiet," said safety C.J. Spillman, perhaps the most talented of the coverage crew. "We're just getting our work done. We don't have to be vocal or nothing. We're just going out there and getting it done and going unnoticed."

Costanzo departed via free agency to the Bears in 2012, and the 49ers' special-teams' performance dipped. The team finished second-to-last in the NFL in yards allowed per kickoff return – 26.9 – in the regular season, then gave up a record 108-yard return against the Ravens to open the second half of the Super Bowl.

Spillman said Kassim Osgood, 33, and Ray Ventrone, 31, have helped close the gaps that opened last year and have set the tone in 2013. Both are multiyear veterans who have spent most of their careers on special teams.

"We've got two of them who have been playing special teams for a long time," Spillman said. "When you've got people like that, it makes your job that much easier."

Osgood pounced on the loose ball last Sunday, the second touchdown of his career in that fashion. He also is one of four newcomers to the main coverage units this year. Two other low-key veterans, Dan Skuta and Craig Dahl, are the others.

"We're starting to learn each other's body language and see the same pictures," Osgood said. "When guys are in one accord, you play off each other and make plays on the field."

Those plays have become more frequent, giving the specials teams – and the 49ers – a feel they had in 2011 when each of the three phases seemed to complement the other.

Opponents are averaging 20.7 yards per kickoff return, making the 49ers' coverage units fifth-best in the league in that category. The punt-coverage units rank eighth overall.

Individually, Spillman leads the team with 10 special-teams tackles, including six solo, and the team has won recent matchups with ace returners such as Arizona's Patrick Peterson.

"I've talked about it after each of the ballgames, especially the last three, four ballgames," Harbaugh said. "Special teams are playing very well – coverage units in particular."

And while he and his teammates may exude a veteran's cool, Osgood said it still feels good to pump up a crowd. There will be more than 80,000 fans in Wembley Stadium today.

"Over the last couple of weeks, we've made it a point in our meeting room to give our offense, our defense good field position," he said. "When you go out there and get a tackle inside the 10-yard line on a kickoff, it means your defense is going out there fired up. The crowd is into it. It puts the atmosphere of the game a lot more in your favor."

Read Matthew Barrows' blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers and listen for his reports Tuesdays on ESPN Radio 1320.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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MATTHEW BARROWS

Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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