Special Teams Coordinator Richard Hightower Press Conference

Special Teams Coordinator Richard Hightower

Press Conference – December 8, 2021

San Francisco 49ers

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Let’s just start off with the first or the second special teams play of the game. What happened on that play on the fake punt?

“Yeah. I’ll talk about the first play first because the first play, it was scary play. And we all were situation and I just know [RB Trenton Cannon] Trent means a lot to our team. He means a lot to our special teams unit. He means a lot to this whole organization and to see him go down right there, it was scary. But I don’t feel right not talking about that play first, but the second play, we can dive right into that. The second play, we had a call on and it’s totally it’s totally on me. Players couldn’t have done anything in that situation at all. We had a call on where we were trying to set up the offense in good field position there and they had the perfect play on, they got us. Bottom line, they got us, they had the perfect play on. So that’s what happened on that play.”

And do you think you guys have shown that look before and that was kind of an automatic thing for Seattle?

“No, it’s not an automatic deal at all and it’s a risky deal too. And they got us on that play. That’s the bottom line.”

Has Seattle ever done that play before to your knowledge? Have you ever seen it on tape?

“The thing about that play is everybody does it. Yeah, everybody’s done it before. It’s not like people don’t do it. Like people do it. And we were in a situation where if they did it right there, it was going to be the perfect play and they got us.”

You look at that and watching it over, it looked like you guys had just no chance to defend it with the two guys out on the gunner and [RB] JaMycal [Hasty], I think was the end and you had a six-man line kind of bunched together. So do you have to weigh into that, just how vulnerable that makes you guys for that play?

“Yeah, no doubt. And that’s a fair question, man. It really is. But you also have to weigh in the risk and reward on that play and they took a huge risk and they got a huge reward and most people don’t do that, at times in that situation. But could I have had them in a different call? Definitely. And that’s totally on me. It’s not on the players at all. And I’ve told them that and they know that and what we’re going to do is we’re not going to dwell on it. It is like when we win games or when we have great plays, like when we had the play with D.J. and he stopped the fake, we have to move on. Like we can’t beat our chest and say, it’s great. And we can’t dwell on that play and not get ready for Cincy. So they got us, we have to move on and that’s part of it. Like you go into every game thinking you have a great game plan, you really do. And what you work on in practice, what you work on in meetings, countless hours of practice on the field, countless hours of preparation. And when things don’t work out, they’re frustrating. And when they do work out, they’re extremely rewarding. But whether we win or lose, have a good play, bad play, still have to move on. And that’s what I’m telling the guys and the competitive fire that drives us. Is the fire for us to want to be a part of something special and stop a play like that, so that’s where we are on that one guys. And those are all fair questions.”

To have those two things that you’ve had to refer to, the play with Trent and then that other thing happens, the punt return happens so quickly. That’s two gut punches. How did you think they respond the rest of the way?

“I think in this league and I’ve been coaching for 16 years, even more than that if you count other years, but that happens every Sunday. So you have to be able to respond in terms of if you get punched or not punched. The Trent Cannon play, doesn’t happen every week, that doesn’t happen all the time. It’s not what I’m saying, but it is going happen. So we’re all professionals and we have to move on and they responded decently for a bit and we all did, but then we had another negative play in the ball game. So we can’t have those plays happen and expect to win. And I know that and I have to get better as a coach and all those guys in the locker room are telling me, ‘Hey, we have to play better.’ And I’m telling them, ‘no, I have to coach better.’ And that’s what kind of family we have. That’s what kind of team we have. So I just have to be better as a coach. And they got us on that play. And then they got us on the kickoff play where they punched the ball out on their kickoff coverage, our kickoff return. And it’s frustrating. Trust me. It is, but we have to move on. We have to move on and we have to go to the Bengals.”

The returners have to hold the ball in the arm that’s closest to the boundary, correct?

“It depends. You would like them to do that. You would like the returners to hold the ball in their arm closest to the sideline, but all returners don’t do that.”

He’s veteran too, so that’s something he knows. He hasn’t been in that position a while. Is that why?

“No, we coach ball security. Travis practices that all the time. And this is an organization I’ve been with that we talk about ball security more than any other organization that I ever been with. Every day, every week we have time allotted for it. And Travis has been in this league a long time. Travis knows he needs to hold onto the ball, but again, I have to coach him better. I have to get the ball in his other arm. And even if the ball’s in his other arm, he still has to hold onto it. And the thing you have to know on kickoff return, when you’re a kickoff returner, is when the traffic comes you need to put the off hand on the ball. We got seven points of pressure that we talk about, that [Running backs coach Robert Turner Jr.] talks Bobby T about. We got all kind of dialogue and dissertation on how to carry a ball, how to do a ball. And we didn’t do it in that situation. And that’s on me and we have to hold onto the ball.”

When facing a team with eight losses, you know they’re liable to try something like a fake punt because they’re desperate. Was it just one of those situations where you weren’t expecting to do it backed up like that?

“Anytime we’ve played desperate teams in the past, especially when we were rolling on our super bowl run, we’ve played desperate teams all the time. They had the perfect play in that situation. And we played a ton of desperate teams that didn’t do it, but they got us and they got us.”

Against the Vikings, they had the kickoff return touchdown. Seattle wasn’t wonderful. You mentioned 16 years in the league. Is this the most kind of personal adversity you felt like you’ve faced?

“Yeah, well it’s football. Like to me football is personal adversity and it builds character. And that’s what I like about our locker room and our guys, because we got the right type of character guys. What we’re going to do is we’re going to go back to work. Like we’ve always done, just like we do after a win or a loss and I need to coach better. And obviously they feel like they need to play better. We’ve had two weeks that are not up to our standard in a row and we can’t have that happen if we want to go where we want to go. And we know it’s not up to our standard and I believe that we’ll get back to our standard. They know, I’ve told them. We played three games this year, two Seattle games and the Minnesota game. Every other game, I have to give those guys credit because they went out there and they did what they were supposed to do. And they did a hell of a job. And those other three games, when we didn’t play well, that falls on me and I have to get them better.”

Head coach Kyle Shanahan has talked about CB Ambry Thomas having his best game on special teams. What did he so well?

“Ambry, he just is developing more confidence and he’s playing faster and he’s starting to learn how to read returns more. And he’s just developing more of a mindset of what it takes to play special teams. And he had three tackles in the ball game. We put something in for him that allowed him to go and use his talents the way he knows how to use them. And he felt confident. He was excited about it. He was in my office yesterday. Again, geeked up. What’s the plan this week. So these guys are ready to go. They’re ready to respond. And that’s what life is. Life is challenges. And what I tell of them is we have to respond, man. That’s what we have to do. And Ambry had some adversity early on. He did, he didn’t get a chance to dress and do some of those things, but I couldn’t be more proud of the way he’s responded, but that’s what our special team’s rooms about. Trenton Cannon had some adversity in the beginning. You guys remember that. You guys were all over it. We were all over Trenton Cannon. I was as a coach, you guys were, everybody was and he responded and played at almost pro bowl level. [P] Mitch [Wishnowsky] had some things that he wanted to get better at this offseason. He’s gotten so much better in punting and responding to adversity. That’s what I want to do. I want to build guys up, build their character, make them respond to adversity, teach them fundamentals, technique and help the football team while doing it. And I can’t wait to go to practice. These guys can’t wait to go to practice. We can’t wait to get back out there. And respond to the challenge that’s ahead of us, because that’s football. And that’s what we do. That’s what we do as coaches. That’s what we do for a living, so I love it. I don’t blink at adversity. It’s time to respond now. And the guys know it.”

Is there anything specific that you guys want to fix on kick coverage after they had a couple big returns in Seattle?

“Yeah, it’s a lot of things in that area we need to get better on. And we’re working to get better on that. In those areas, the guys are working on getting off blocks. I’m working on my calls, what I’m calling for them to get off blocks and to set them up in different positions. And they’re working on tackling and we’re going to work on it again today. We’ve designed some drill work today, cut out just for kickoff coverage. We’re always going to do what we always do, but we want to do something a little bit different that we do in training camp today to work on our tackling and work on getting off blocks. And these guys are going to work their tails off. I don’t have any qualms about how hard they are going to work and try to get back after it. And they are going to play with relentless effort and they are going to go out there and try to put something on tape that we can be proud of.”

Not to make excuses for you since this happens all the time in the NFL, but was Sunday uniquely challenging just because [WR Trent] Sherfield didn’t play on special teams. Cannon obviously got hurt. [LB] Marcell [Harris] wasn’t there. LB Demetrius [Flannigan-Fowles] was mostly defense. Just obviously there’s a trickledown effect. Was that uniquely challenging or just kind of just another week?

“Sure, you know me, I’m not going to make excuses. It happens all across the league, all the time and it’s my job to, whether it’s uniquely challenging or just another day, we have to go out there and we have to play and make plays. And I have to get them ready in the right situation to go out there and make those plays. My dad, obviously, God rest his soul, he didn’t allow me to make to make excuses. So to me, like it doesn’t matter what players on the field. We have to get them ready to go, because the team needs us to get them ready to go. And that’s our focus against Cincy is to get them ready to go. That’s just where I am. It is challenging, but it’s no excuse, no excuse. I don’t care when they out here. I don’t care if they just got here. I don’t care if they’ve been here. No excuses.”

What kind of challenges do you face this week going against Cincinnati? What’s kind of the hallmark of their special teams?

“Well, Cincinnati, I’m glad you asked. They’ve been outstanding on special teams for years with [Cincinnati Bengals assistant head coach/special teams coordinator] Darrin [Simmons]. He’s been there 19 years as a coach. He’s a phenomenal coach. He knows punters and kickers and special teams just as well as anybody. They’ve got a good returner in [Cincinnati Bengals CB] Darius Phillips, he’s a good player. He’s a 4.3 player. They got a really good core, got a former pro bowler over there. [S] Michael [J.] Thomas, who I actually know personally, but he’s a good player. He’s actually from the same area of Houston I’m from. And he’s a really good player for them. They picked him up and he’s a challenge. We have to make sure we get him taking care of and they got some really good players. 17, [Cincinnati Bengals WR] Stanley Morgan’s a good player. So they play sound. They play relentless. They get after it. They’ve been good for years and it’s going to be a huge challenge for us, but we’re excited for the challenge. We can’t wait to play these guys. I’m just telling you. So it’ll be fun this week.”