Mike De Sisti-USA TODAY Sports

Mike De Sisti-USA TODAY Sports

Unexpected heroes deliver on special teams for 49ers in win over Packers

Jan 22, 2022 at 11:38 PM--

Jordan Willis and Talanoa Hufanga wouldn't have been the first two players many would have predicted to become game-changing heroes in Saturday night's Divisional Playoff game against the Green Bay Packers, but both of them delivered plays in the 49ers' 13-10 win that will be remembered for years to come.

The efforts of Willis and Hufanga were part of a huge special teams performance for the 49ers that played a crucial role in winning a game in which they had no offensive or defensive touchdowns. Willis was involved in two significant special teams plays, the first of which came at the end of the first half when he got penetration that helped safety Jimmie Ward block a field goal to prevent the Packers from going up by ten points.

It seems like Willis can be seen in the video above swiping the arm of Dean Lowry of the Packers, which helped Ward burst through the line.

"I don't know if he did that," Ward said after the game. "That might be illegal now. But he did his job. He got great penetration."

Then, late in the fourth quarter, Willis and Hufanga came up with the play that turned the game around for the 49ers -- a blocked punt for a touchdown that tied the game and gave the 49ers momentum heading down the stretch.

After Willis made the block, the ball hung in the air for a couple seconds before the 49ers figured out where it was due to the weather conditions. The player who found it was Hufanga, who then ran it in for the score.

"No one on the field could see it," 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said after the game. "I was just hoping one of our guys was going to pick it up, and Huf did. In those elements, I was really hoping he was going to pick it up and return it because I wasn't wanting to have to call plays to get in from there."

Hufanga told reporters Saturday night that he didn't actually see the ball at first and only knew where it was after hearing it bounce next to him. From there, he wasn't going to be denied a trip to the end zone.

"I heard the block, then I think you guys probably saw all of us look for it," Hufanga said. "We were struggling. With the snow and the dark, we couldn't see it. But then I heard it bounce to me left, then I just turned around and I wasn't going to jump on it; I just wanted to score. I wanted to help the team any way I can, so that was fun."

The special teams plays were memorable moments for Willis, who at one point looked like he was in danger of not playing in Saturday night's game after spraining his ankle against the Dallas Cowboys in the Wild Card round. 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa was among those to give some praise to Willis after the game.

"I love Jordan," Bosa said. "He's an interesting dude. Not many people really understand who he is. It takes a little extra to get to know him. He's quiet. But I love him. And he's a really good player, and he's showing it out there."

49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan recognized Willis by giving him a game ball, while also giving some credit to special teams head coach Richard Hightower. The 49ers came into the game knowing they needed to deliver on special teams given the weather they would be playing in and given the difficulties the Packers have had on special teams throughout the season.

"Richard did a hell of a job. It's a big game," Shanahan said. "I know they've had some adversity here over the second half of the season. We said it on Tuesday when we started. We thought our special teams had an advantage in this game and we thought they had an opportunity to possibly win us the game. To be able to say that and actually have it come to fruition -- those guys pulled it off, and it was huge for those guys and huge for our team."

Meanwhile, it's likely some heads will roll in Green Bay after what happened on Saturday night. The blocked kicks were only two moments of what was a dismal special teams performance for the Packers, who also gave up two big kick returns during the game and had only 10 players on the field for 49ers kicker Robbie Gould's game-winning field goal.

"You could argue that was the difference in the game but I think it was more than just that play," Packers coach Matt LaFleur said of the blocked punt, per NFL.com. "I don't know exactly what happened, I'll have to go back and take a look at the tape. We had two blocks in this game and obviously, it played a big part in us coming up short."

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