Andy Lee is the most high profile special teams player, but often times, he is only as good as his coverage unit. The punt and kick coverage units got off to a strong start under Jim Harbaugh in 2011. Unfortunately, they regressed last season, as the 49ers let some key members go, and did not adequately replace them. The front office spent more time investing in special teams this offseason, and it is bearing fruit.
The unit is meshing well, and we saw that against Arizona, particularly on the coverage units. Patrick Peterson ran back Andy Lee's first punt for 18 yards to the Arizona 44. After that, following Lee punts, the Cardinals started on their own 3, 7, 39, 20, and 5. The 39-yard start came after a punt from the 49ers own 15.
The star of the coverage units on Sunday seemed to be C.J. Spillman. His best play cam on a 58-yard punt by Lee. Patrick Peterson caught the ball at his own 6, and was tripped up by Spillman at the 10 (a holding call moved them half the distance to the goal). It seems like virtually every week we see Spillman making such a play. The 49ers defense is an important part of setting up the field position battle, but setting the Cardinals up inside their own ten opens the door for the defense to get particularly nasty.
There is still a lot of football to be played this season, but six weeks in, the special teams coverage units are looking strong. The return game is not overly impressive, but if the 49ers can set opposing offenses up deep in their own territory, the 49ers defense can do some serious damage.