Members of the 49ers special teams this week admitted they miss Blake Costanzo on a personal level. The coverage ace, who signed a free-agent deal with the Bears in the offseason, was funny and outgoing and tough, and he quickly became a favorite personality in the 49ers locker room.
But those same players stopped short of saying they missed Costanzo on the field. The 49ers coverage units, one of the best in the league a year ago, have had a reversal of fortune this season, ranking among the worst units in stopping both kick and punt returns through five games.
Asked if the energy level has dwindled since the supercharged Costanzo left, Tavares Gooden said, no, the 49ers simply need to tackle better.
"Seems to me like we were jumping around out there pretty well," Gooden said. "Like I said, we've just got to tackle. It's not one man. It's not one person. We're not going to point fingers, and we're not going to say that we miss one player and we need him back. That's not what we're going to do. What we're going to say is this: We're going to say all we need to do this week is tackle better. And we need to eliminate some of the silly penalties we had. Like I said: tackle. That's it."
The 49ers currently rank 30th in the league in allowing 30.9 yards per kick return and 31st in allowing 23.6 yards per punt return. The Packers returned a punt for a touchdown in the season opener, although the play probably should have been called back for a penalty.
A punt-return touchdown by the Bills last week was called back on a penalty, and the Bills also had a long kick return in which Tramaine Brock had to chase down return man Leodis McKelvin from behind. Darcel McBath appeared to miss a tackle when McKelvin was hemmed in at the Buffalo 19-yard line. The 49ers also allowed a punt-return touchdown in a preseason game against the Texans.
Last year, the 49ers ranked 13th in kick return defense and 11th in stopping punt returns. They didn't allow a touchdown in either category.
Costanzo finished second on the squad with 17 special teams tackles. Spillman led the group with 19 while Gooden had 12 and linebacker Larry Grant had 10. Spillman, Gooden and Grant all return this year, along with Anthony Dixon and Bruce Miller. That is, on paper at least, the 49ers should have strong coverage units.
Said Spillman: "Everybody's starting to feel out one another and know how everybody plays. Basically it's about being unselfish - like we were last year - and not worrying about, 'Oh, I've got to get this tackle or this many tackles.' If we just play our game, everything will come in order. Everyone will get what they're trying to get accomplished. We're that good a group."
-- Matt Barrows