Divisional Matchups: Special Teams
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Divisional Matchups: Special Teams

In Part 5 of our five-part series previewing Saturday night's NFC divisional playoff game, beat writers Bill Huber of PackerReport.com and Craig Massei of NinersDigest.com break down the special teams. The units are mirror images: Excellent returners and punters but suspect kickers.

PackerReport.com's Bill Huber and NinersDigest.com's Craig Massei analyze Saturday night's matchups. In Part 5 of a five-part series, we examine the Green Bay Packers' rushing offense against the San Francisco 49ers' rushing defense. Part 1 is the Packers' passing game against the 49ers' pass defense, Part 2 is the 49ers' passing game against the Packers' pass defense , Part 3 is the Packers' running game against the 49ers' run defense and Part 4 is the 49ers' running game against the Packers' run defense.

Packers special teams

It's interesting to see how the teams handled their kickers. San Francisco had a kick-off between David Akers and Billy Cundiff before deciding to stick with Akers. Green Bay's Mason Crosby suffered through a 12-of-24 stretch, including bad misses of 43 and 42 yards at Chicago in Week 15.

FOX Sports' Jimmy Johnson, who obviously knows a little about football, said it would take Crosby a year to get right mentally. The Packers, nonetheless, stuck with Crosby. He made his last four of the regular season, including a 51-yarder at Minnesota, and hit another against MInnesota in the wild-card game last week to run his streak to five.

Is Crosby over his slump? Can the Packers count on him to hit a key 45-yarder on Saturday night? Who knows, though Crosby and the coaches are confident that he's worked his way through things.

Beyond Crosby, Packers coach Mike McCarthy has called the special teams his most consistent units throughout the season.

Tim Masthay hasn't been quite as sharp down the stretch but he's one of most underrated punters in the league. His net average of 38.9 yards per punt might not seem great — it ranked 21st in the league — but it broke his own team record. Kicking in Green Bay isn't the same as kicking in San Francisco or a dome. Of his last six games, five were in the cold. Of the 12 punters with at least 30 inside-the-20 punts, only two had fewer touchbacks — the byproduct of his expertise using the Aussie-style drop punt once the team crosses midfield. He had just 32.9 percent of his punts returned, the best rate in the league.

Randall Cobb finished 12th in kickoff returns and 14th in punt returns, including his 75-yard touchdown against San Francisco. Cobb was injured on a punt return in Week 16 against Tennessee. Last week, Cobb was back on punts and first-year player Jeremy Ross handled kickoffs. They've proven explosive: Cobb is fast and elusive; Ross is big and fast. For apples-to-apples on kickoffs, Green Bay's average starting point after a kickoff is the 23.1-yard line, 10th-best in the league. The defense also steps on the field at the 23.1 following a kickoff, 24th in the league.

McCarthy isn't afraid to gamble. Against Chicago in Week 2, he dialed up a fourth-and-goal fake field goal from the 26-yard line that resulted in a touchdown, and they got a first down on a fake punt while backed inside their 20 against New Orleans in Week 4. Then there was the disaster on a punt return at Chicago a few weeks ago, when Cobb fielded the punt and threw a lateral to Ross, who dropped the ball for a fumble. McCarthy isn't afraid to dial up a surprise onside kick, either.

Brett Goode has been flawless as the snapper Jarrett Bush (17) tackles and Jamari Lattimore (10 tackles) are the special-teams captains.

49ers special teams

San Francisco's special teams units that were so extra-special in 2011 ran into more than a few hiccups as the 2012 season progressed, but in the end they once again could be considered a strength and a reason for the team's overall success.

But the shortcomings became magnified over the second half of the season as kicker David Akers, a first-team All-Pro last season after setting several NFL records, struggled while missing big kick after big kick that cost the 49ers at least two victories that could have given them home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

It got so bad that the 49ers, after watching Akers miss field-goal attempts from 44 and 40 yards on their home turf against Arizona in the season finale, signed journeyman Billy Cundiff to compete with Akers during the two weeks leading up to Saturday's game against the Packers. But coach Jim Harbaugh announced Thursday the team will stick with Akers for this game, and that's not necessarily a bad thing for the 49ers. Despite his struggles this year, Akers can hit a clutch kick from anywhere, as he exhibited with his record-tying 63-yard field goal against the Packers in the season opener.

Andy Lee remains one of the NFL's premier punters and a key player in helping the 49ers win the battle of field position. A first-team All-Pro last year, Lee was tremendous again this season, finishing the year with a 48.1-yard average and 43.2 net average while dropping 36 kicks inside the 20-yard line. He's phenomenal, and despite his big numbers, Lee's also exceptional at angling his kicks toward the sidelines to prevent big returns.

Ted Ginn Jr. hasn't been the big threat as a return specialist that he was last season, but he is still dangerous despite experiencing a late-season slump that saw him shaky fielding punts. The team has handed kickoff return duties to rookie LaMichael James, who didn't make his NFL debut until Dec. 9 but has displayed great explosiveness returning kickoffs since then, averaging 29.8 yards on 14 returns.

San Francisco's coverage units have several solid contributors who can be counted on for consistent performance, particularly covering punts, where the 49ers ranked fourth in the NFL despite allowing a 75-yard touchdown return to Randall Cobb in the season opener. The kickoff coverage hasn't been nearly as good, however, ranking 31st in the league.


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.