In previewing the 49ers-Seahawks Thursday Night Football contest, both Kenneth Arthur and I pointed out the importance of special teams in this game (Seahawks video, 49ers video). While I am not always right, I think I hit the nail on the head with this one. There were big special teams plays that did not have a huge impact, but the overall tone of special teams strongly favored the 49ers, and was a difference-maker.
The two big names we saw on special teams for the 49ers were Ted Ginn Jr. and Andy Lee. They both had big games thanks in part to their own skills, and in part due to the strong units surrounding them. Entering this game, the 49ers had struggled quite a bit on special teams. Andy Lee still had a strong leg, and Kyle Williams had some solid kick returns, but the various aspects of special teams were performing under par compared to last season.
Ted Ginn was the highest profile special teams performer on Thursday Night Football. Ginn had three punt returns for 70 yards, with a long of 38 yards followed by a pair of 16-yard returns. The 49ers only managed three points off his big returns, which is obviously disappointing. However, given the lack of consistency in the return game this season, it was nice to see several big returns from Ginn. He had one return where he ended up losing a couple yards trying to cross the field, but he has built up enough cred otherwise to get away with that every so often.
Given the lack of points built off of Ginn's returns, there is a reasonable argument to be made that the punting unit's work was much more important. Andy Lee averaged 45.6 yards per punt, with four of his five punts dropping inside the 20-yard line. His only punt outside the 20 was a 45-yard punt that was muffed and resulted in a loss of two yards.
Through the first six weeks, the 49ers kick and punt coverage units struggled mightily with any kind of consistency. The punt unit has had plenty of high moments, but also some lows. Meanwhile, the kick coverage unit had struggled to keep teams from breaking big plays. Thursday saw David Akers booming kicks, so the kick coverage unit was not entirely tested. But all the credit in the world to Akers for handling his business on those kickoffs. For the coverage unit, we'll have to wait another week to see if they have cleaned up the coverage.
Speaking of Akers, the 49ers kicker bounced back with a pair of field goals that proved key in a defensive battle. I will say that the first time he came on the field to even the score at three, I was slightly nervous. Not Jose Cortez nervous, but more nervous than any time last season. Akers is on pace for the worst field goal percentage of his career, currently sitting at 72.2% for the season. Ideally he will return back closer to his career mark in the low 80s, but for now we'll have to wait and see.