Game matchups: 49ers/Packers special teams

NinersDigest's Craig Massei and Packer Report's Bill Huber break down the matchups of Sunday's pivotal NFC season opener between the 49ers and Green Bay Packers. Here we take a look at what to watch when the special teams units are on the field.

49ers special teams

The 49ers' special teams units could make a strong argument for being the NFL's best last season, and their outstanding play on a regular basis was a major factor in San Francisco's turnaround season after eight consecutive years within a winning record. The Niners consistently won the battle for field position with All-Pro punter Andy Lee setting a NFL record with a net average of 44.0 yards per punt to go along with his 50.9 gross average, which also led the NFL and ranks as the third-best in league history. Lee was a veritable weapon that got the 49ers out of holes and put opponents into them. The Niners also feature veteran kicker David Akers, who himself is coming off an All-Pro season in which he set a NFL record with 44 field goals made. It didn't matter much that San Francisco's offense stalled so often in enemy territory, because Akers always was there to make it worth three points for the Niners. Akers also has great range – he made eight field goals from beyond 50 yards last year, and he was booming them as well as ever during the preseason. In an embarrassment of riches, long-snapper supreme Brian Jennings also made the Pro Bowl last season. San Francisco's coverage units also are stellar, and several core players return on each of them. The return game also was very strong in 2011 with Ted Ginn Jr. finishing third in the NFL in kickoff returns with a 27.2-yard average and fourth in the league returning punts with a 12.3 average. But Ginn rolled an ankle in San Francisco's Aug. 26 preseason game at Denver and hasn't practiced since. He's listed as questionable for Sunday's game and is unlikely to play. His likely replacements are Kyle Williams on punts and Kendall Hunter on kickoffs. Both have breakaway ability, but Williams is best known for his two fumbles on punts against New York in January that handed the Giants the NFC Championship Game.

Packers special teams

The Packers' special teams are outstanding, as well, though they'd be a decided underdog if Sunday's game were only about the kicking game. The Niners topped the charts in the Dallas Morning News' annual rankings while Green Bay ranked 13th. That No. 13 ranking might not sound that great, but it's a far cry from 2009 (31st) and 2010 (29th). The skill players are major strengths. Kicker Mason Crosby, who had never made 80 percent of his field-goal attempts in his first four seasons, connected on 85.7 percent of his attempts (24-of-28) in a breakout season. With 649 points, he's scored more points than any player in his first five seasons in NFL history. Punter Tim Masthay set franchise records for gross (45.5) and net (38.6) averages. Masthay has emerged as one of the league's top punters. Over the final 10 games, his net was 43.6. He'll never match Lee's numbers, but Lee never will have to spend two or three or four games every season punting a frozen football. Returner Randall Cobb joined Ginn and Devin Hester as the only players in the league to score touchdowns on a punt return and kickoff return. He finished second in the league with a 27.7-yard average on kickoff returns and seventh with an 11.3-yard average on punt returns. The worry with Cobb is he lost three of the team's six fumbles. Jarrett Bush brings energy and production as the top player among the core special-teamers, with Brad Jones and Ryan Taylor being other key returning players.

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