Q. The last six or seven weeks, the special teams have been a lot better than they were. They seem to have coincided a little bit with LB Christian Elliss’ insertion. Is that it or has there been more to the success of the units? (Jeff McLane)
MICHAEL CLAY: Once again, I praise [LB] Christian [Elliss] for being ready when his number got called, but I think it’s just the growth of everybody else in terms of the special teams unit. Early on we took our lumps and it wasn’t great for us, but I think that after that, and especially after the Green Bay game, I think you guys and everyone has seen that there’s been a huge uptick in our production and everyone playing well. Like we said before, it was never a finished product, but kudos to those guys coming together, banding together and improving and trying to help this team get to the spot that we’re in.
It’s very much a blessing, and the guys worked hard to get to this spot, to be in the NFC Championship game, and being able to help out in any facet that they can. We all know the special teams unit could be a huge swing of things. You see across the playoffs that it can be huge, so it’s more kudos to Christian being ready when his number is called and all the other guys just getting better and better as the weeks have gone on to help this team.
Q. Did you do anything differently? What changed? Did you change? Did the mindset change? What led to this? (Dave Zangaro)
MICHAEL CLAY: I wouldn’t say that me personally changing. I try to come in every day, because like I’ve said before, these guys, you spend so much time around them, if you change one bit or try to be someone that you’re not, they’re going to sniff it out. I think it’s just the more reps these guys have gotten, a lot of young guys out there, but the more reps they got, the more familiarity they have to what special teams in the NFL is. Being able to dissect plays, being able to come together, speak a couple things. There may be some stuff where I had to do a better job of explaining to them in their own terms where they get it and then it clicks for them, where I’ve had to grow as a coach, as a coordinator for these guys to get going.
But again, 98 percent of the time it’s them just going out there playing with the energy, the confidence that they know they can be out there and play.
I just try to put them in the best spot that they possibly can to make a big play.
But again, still not a finished product. We still want to get better and have an opportunity this upcoming weekend against a very good special teams unit to help our team get to our ultimate goal, which is to be in Arizona in a few weeks.
Q. What’s the breakdown of the Niners’ special teams units? (Tim McManus)
MICHAEL CLAY: Good unit. Very good unit. [49ers Special Teams Coordinator Brian] Schneider does an unbelievable job. He’s done an unbelievable job in his career. Fortunate enough, when I was an assistant, he was in Seattle so I had a lot of battles with him.
[49ers S] George Odum, I can’t say enough good things about George Odum. He’s an all-pro special teams player, plays with great speed, tenacity, motor.
Obviously [49ers K] Robbie [Gould], you don’t kick in this league for a long time without being an ice-in-the-veins type guy. [49ers P] Mitch Wishnowsky, I could go on and on about their special teams unit.
But again, it’s for us in this building, to get a good week’s work in, be ready for them, it’s going to be a good battle in terms of special teams-wise, but we’re looking forward to the challenge that’s ahead of us.
Q. P Brett Kern was a little bit up and down his first few games, obviously three inside the 20. Well inside the 20 on Saturday night. What did you see from him? What changed for him? (Reuben Frank)
MICHAEL CLAY: Just being more, staying true to what he’s been doing for 14 years, not second-guessing himself more than anything else. He had a really good week of practice, getting into more of a natural rhythm of everything, and for us it paid off in that game. You could see how much field position changes those three inside the 15 or whatever it may be. One was really good coverage by [CB] Zech McPhearson, just understanding what type of returner we were going against right there, understanding that he liked to take chances inside the 15 and getting down there, then those plus-50 punts with the protection and the hang time to allow our gunners to cause those fair catches I thought was really good. [P] Brett [Kern], he’s been such a great holder, and our operation did a really good job of hitting our extra points and field goals right there.
Just the confidence Brett has going back out there, just being true to what he was for 14 years.
Q. Is your advice just to stick with him the rest of the way even if P Arryn Siposs is ready? (Jeff McLane)
MICHAEL CLAY: I’m just getting ready with the guys that we’ve got right now. Anything injury-wise [Executive Vice President/General Manager] Howie [Roseman] and Coach Sirianni will take care of, but for right now we’re game planning that Brett [Kern] is our punter, so we’ll go on with that.
Q. RB Boston Scott seems to have added a lot to the kickoff return game. Why do you think it took so long to get to him before you settled on him? (John McMullen)
MICHAEL CLAY: Just like I said, a little bit of a change-up right there. I think we started to put him in there around the Green Bay game, and he’s getting north and south with what he wanted to do, and stayed very simple schematically, get these guys just playing fast, hey, you’ve got this guy, let’s just get it and go.
[RB] Boston [Scott] has done an unbelievable job. I think everybody has done an unbelievable job in terms of taking the onus of hey, we can really do something and help in field position. That’s a huge thing, a starting field position, regardless if it’s a return or staying true to the key of being a surprise onside kick, being tuned in there because it helps our offense out. When the offense only has to go 42 yards, 50 yards right there, you see what we can do. Then if we get that ball past the 30-yard line, it takes the added pressure off not them getting seven yards. So, I think Boston has done an unbelievable job of getting downhill, seeing, he has really good vision, obviously being a running back, then just the guys in front blocking.
It’s tough in this league when guys are running down 60 yards full speed, but these guys sprint back, get with their landmarks, get their hands inside, pretty much playing penalty-free outside of probably two on our kickoff return this year. So, it’s everybody coming together knowing that they can affect the game.
Q. With WR Britain Covey and with RB Boston Scott having an impact on the game, given the magnitude of the game, how do you coach them to stay within themselves but not be afraid to make an impact in the game? (Al Thompson)
MICHAEL CLAY: You never want to be superman out there. The game is going to come to you. Yes, if you’re getting touchbacks, touchbacks, you’re itching to get a return, but obviously you’ve got to take the pros and cons of the whole thing. The same with [WR] Britain [Covey] being a punt returner. It’s tough out there being a punt returner. When he’s got an opportunity, get it and go. I try to stress to him, get a first down. If you can get a 1st down every time, it helps out the offense. You’ve got 10 yards right there.
But also, it’s our number one goal on return game is give the ball to the offense. If the ball is up there 42 yards at a 4.7 hang time, most likely you’re not going to get a return. Catch it, we’ll live to see another down right there. So, staying within themselves, making smart decisions, but when they do give you the opportunity, stay true, be confident, make a big play right there, get the 10-, 15-yard return, and Britain has done a really good job, especially this latter half.
I think everyone saw after that Tennessee game the confidence of the 20 yards, the 15, the 16 yards, and to the guys on the outside handling those gunners right there, then obviously [RB] Boston [Scott] getting downhill, was it back-to-back weekends where he had 50-plus-yard returns. So it’s just staying within ourselves, and when they give us an opportunity, let’s go out there and make them pay, but let’s not do too much.
Q. The five years that you spent in San Francisco and in particular the years with this current staff, what did they do for your career and your development? (Zach Berman)
MICHAEL CLAY: Yeah, I mean, those five years in San Francisco I’m very blessed to be around [49ers Head Coach] Kyle [Shanahan] and that entire staff, and you’ve seen how his staff has kind of blossomed out, [Jets Head Coach Robert] Saleh being the head coach with the Jets and [Dolphins Head Coach Mike McDaniel] McD being the head coach with the Dolphins and guys getting offensive coordinators at other places. It’s just very fortunate to have been around a coaching tree like that, and now guys go over and you see different teams, hey, how you doing, how’s the family doing. So just very blessed to do that.
I’ve still got colleagues on that staff right now that outside of this game we would text back and forth, hey, pleasantries and everything like that. So just very blessed to be under that coaching tree with Kyle.
Q. I was curious with WR Britain Covey. Is he ever sent out there to just go out and fair catch it and let’s get it to the offense? (Ed Kracz)
MICHAEL CLAY: There’s all different scenarios where, hey, just catch it right here, trying to save time, or the only thing that can happen is if, God forbid, there be a muffed punt and they get the ball or something like that, you tell him, hey, just get away from it. But for the most part situationally he’s been very smart about everything. Hey, just fair catch it. If I feel anything, let me fair catch. If I’ve got green grass, let me get downhill and try to make a play, but there’s different scenarios where we communicate on that.
Q. 49ers WR Ray-Ray McCloud III is averaging about 11 yards per return during the playoffs. What has made him so effective in the postseason, and what do you have to do to stop him? (Chris Franklin)
MICHAEL CLAY: [49ers WR] Ray-Ray [McCloud III] has been in the league a few years, very explosive. He stretches the coverage, puts his foot in the ground and gets downhill. He tracks the ball really well off the punter’s foot. He’s not afraid of contact.
We’ve got to make it a full-on effort from the protection. [49ers Special Teams Coordinator Brian] Schneider does a really good job of scheming up some rushes. They’ve got some guys on the interior, big, strong guys that can bull you back. Then after the punt has been kicked, our gunners, [CB] Josh [Jobe] and [CB] Zech [McPhearson], have to do a really good job against their one-on-ones to get in Ray-Ray’s face and make him bubble, make him go east and west instead of north and south because if you can make a guy go east and west, it allows the interior of the coverage to string him out.
Then we’ve just got to be great tacklers. Especially in the playoffs those missed tackles can turn a four-yard gain into a 40-yard gain. So we have to be great when our first guy is down there to secure it, then the second and third guy, if you have an opportunity to go punch at the ball, but there’s got to be a full-on concerted effort from all 11 of protection first, covering down, making sure we keep Ray-Ray bottled up.
For the most part throughout the entire regular season I thought the guys have done a really good job in terms of that, but we have to keep it up in the playoffs. We had a really good opportunity against [Giants WR] Richie James for a negative 3-yard return, and we have to keep that momentum going, that, hey, it’s going to take all 11 of us to stop a really good returner.
Q. How well did you get to know 49ers Defensive Coordinator DeMeco Ryans in San Francisco? What kind of person or even player is he? (Ed Kracz)
MICHAEL CLAY: Me and [49ers Defensive Coordinator] DeMeco [Ryans] go way back. My first job here as a quality control, he was the linebacker, and I worked with [former Eagles LB coach] Rick Minter and the linebackers. From the first time ever meeting him, talk about a guy that studies film, that’s so cerebral, that’s DeMeco. He’s so smart, and you can throw any concept at him, and he’s going to get it within two to three minutes.
Then from the coaching side, DeMeco was my office neighbor, so I’d walk around and hang out with him, talk ball with him, especially during the draft process, hey, what do you think about this linebacker, what do you think about that.
DeMeco, I mean, kudos to whatever organization hires him as a head coach because he’s going to get that thing turned around. He’s done an unbelievable job, and you can just see the passion that he has as a coordinator, former football player. Everybody knows he can bring it as a player, but super cerebral, players love him, and you can see the guys give full-out effort for him.
Q. Why does he command so much respect from fellow players? (Jeff McLane)
MICHAEL CLAY: I think it’s his demeanor, how he carries himself. Very soft spoken outside of it, but how he interacts. When you’re in a locker room for that long as a player, you pretty much get to know a lot of different personalities. Then when you become a coach you have to know those different personalities, and they respect his work ethic. I respect his work ethic as a coach. The energy he brings, nothing changes for him from day-to-day, so nothing but respect for [49ers Defensive Coordinator] DeMeco [Ryans].
Q. Could you kind of sense he would be a successful coach when he was a player, if he chose to? (Reuben Frank)
MICHAEL CLAY: Yeah, if he wanted to, I think [49ers Defensive Coordinator] DeMeco [Ryans], whatever route he took outside of football, he was going to be successful, whether that be in football or a Fortune 500 company. I thought anything he would have done would have been great.
Q. This postseason has shown the value of consistent kickers. What is it about K Jake Elliott’s temperament that allows him to maintain that consistency? (Zach Berman)
MICHAEL CLAY: I think just his professionalism. Obviously, you guys know when he was a rookie, nothing really rattled him. A 61-yarder as a rookie, it’s hard to rattle a guy. He comes in every day, works his craft. He knows I didn’t hit this well, why didn’t I hit this well, or man, I had a really good session let me go back to the film on why I did this good session. It’s kudos to [K] Jake [Elliott] just having that mindset.
Very similar to [49ers K] Robbie [Gould] in terms of ice in his veins when he’s going out there. Nothing really rattles him. He’s ready to go out there and perform. When he has an opportunity when the lights are shining down on him, he just sinks down to his fundamentals, what got him there, and he’s able to really deliver a lot of big kicks in his career. He’s done a really good job, at least the two years I’ve been with him, he’s been outstanding. I have nothing but love and respect for Jake Elliott for what he does.
Q. What’s he like on game day? (Dave Zangaro)
MICHAEL CLAY: The same as he is from Monday through Saturday. Very calm, cool, collected. He wants to do everything in his power to do right for the team. He stays within himself. Nothing really rattles him. He does his process. He’s easy to communicate with on the field. He’s always out there ready to go.
During the game, it’s easy to communicate with him. I know where he’s at, he knows where I’m at, let’s go with this. He’s like, I’m ready. Whenever he steps between those white lines, he knows he has to put the ball through the uprights.
Q. CB Zech McPhearson has made several impact plays throughout the season. What makes him a quality special teams player? (Josh Tolentino)
MICHAEL CLAY: Again, it goes down to all these guys’ work ethic. He was up in the office on Monday trying to get better. He had one bad rep as a jammer in his own eyes, and he wondered why did that happen. He corrected it right on the field, and then he had a few great reps right there. He really takes special teams to heart. He knows his role on the team. He’s got [CB Darius] Slay and [CB James] Bradberry in front of him, and he learns from them on the defensive side, but he knows on special teams I’ve got to be the top dog. I’ve got to be the captain of the outside unit, and he’s done an unbelievable job.
A lot of kudos goes to [Special Teams Quality Control coach] Tyler Brown, as well. I know he does a lot with the specialists, but he handles the outside guys, and the growth from year one for [CB] Zech [McPhearson] to year two has been outstanding. He prepares like every game is his last game, and he goes out there and he’s trying the make the best plays he possibly can. He’s a very smooth runner. He’s very long as a corner and strong, so when he’s able to do that and get in the hip pocket of someone, he does a really good job.
Again, Zech has done an unbelievable job from year one to year two to help grow this special teams unit.