Game matchups: 49ers/Dolphins special teams

NinersDigest's Craig Massei and DolphinDigest's AlainPoupart break down the matchups of Sunday's inter-conference game between the 49ers and Miami Dolphins. Here we take a look at what to watch when the special teams units are on the field.

49ers special teams

San Francisco's special teams were among the best in the NFL last season and were a significant part of San Francisco's rise back to prominence after eight consecutive seasons without a winning record. Those units haven't been nearly as good or consistent this year, though they remain solid and have contributed to several San Francisco victories. However, they also have contributed to games that didn't turn out that way for the Niners – as kicker David Akers can tell you. Akers, who made a NFL-record 44 field goals last year and set a league scoring record for kickers, missed a 51-yard field goal in overtime last week that would have beaten the Rams. His miss – the ninth FG Akers has missed this season (he missed eight all of last season) – gave the Rams a short field to drive to their game-winning field goal in a 16-13 victory. A month earlier, Akers missed a 41-yard field-goal attempt in overtime – usually a routine distance for him – as the 49ers had to settle for a 24-24 stalemate with the Rams, the NFL's first tie in four seasons. Akers is 21 of 30 on FGs this season and has missed three of his past five attempts. All-Pro punter Andy Lee has continued his strong performance this year and averages 47.3 yards per kick despite placing 30 of his punts inside opponents' 20-yard line. Lee, as he has been for several years, plays a big factor in San Francisco winning the battle for field position on a weekly basis. The 49ers' coverage units remain strong, and Ted Ginn Jr. remains a threat as a return specialist, though he has been in a slump lately returning punts. San Francisco's return game was hurt by the season-ending knee injury two weeks ago to Kyle Williams, who had worked his way into a dual role with Ginn returning kicks. The Niners' special teams also were hurt last week by the absence of core player Demarcus Dobbs, who was arrested for DUI and possession of marijuana on Nov. 30, his 25th birthday, and did not make the trip to St. Louis with the team later that day. Dobbs, who leads the 49ers with 567 points on special teams – according to a formula coaches use to recognize players for performance – returned to the team this week, and he could give these 49ers units a boost if he is a part of them again on Sunday.

Dolphins special teams

The Dolphins spent a first-round pick in 2007 on wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. with the idea he'd spark their return game. Five years later, the Dolphins found themselves with that explosive weapon in the form of former CFL player Marcus Thigpen. Among the NFL leaders in both punt-return and kickoff-return average, Thigpen became the first player in franchise history to score both ways in the same season. Thigpen scored on a punt return in the opener at Houston and added a kickoff return for a touchdown in the Nov. 15 Thursday night game at Buffalo. The Dolphins have had the same kicking trio for years with placekicker Dan Carpenter, punter Brandon Fields and long-snapper John Denney. Carpenter had a costly miss earlier this season in overtime against the Jets, but he came back to hit a game-winner on the final play of the game two Sundays ago against Seattle. He's 17-for-22 on field goals for the season, but is 0-for-3 from 50 yards or beyond. Fields, meanwhile, is averaging more than 50 yards per punt and could be on his way to his first Pro Bowl. Against New England last Sunday, though, he failed to handle a low snap from Denney and was tackled at the Dolphins 12-yard line, setting up the Patriots' first score of the game. It was the third consecutive game the Dolphins had a major breakdown on special teams. Against Buffalo, they gave up a punt return for a touchdown to Leodis McKelvin and then watched Seattle's Leon Washington go all the way with a kickoff return. The Dolphins are hoping they can revert back to their earlier form.

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