Game Matchups: Jets/49ers special teams

NinersDigest's Craig Massei and Green and White Report's Rick Laughland break down the matchups in Sunday's pivotal contest between the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Jets. Here we take a look at what to watch when the special teams units are on the field.


Entering his 30th season an NFL assistant coach and 11th year with the Jets, special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff is regarded as a pioneer with his unit perennially amongst the league's elite. Last season, kick returner Joe McKnight was selected for his first Pro-Bowl leading the NFL in kick return average (29.8). Westhoff announced before training camp that this year would be his final season before retirement and in the early going his special teams group has been nothing short of spectacular the first few weeks.

Punt returner Jeremy Kerley ran back a 57-yarder for a touchdown and punter Robert Malone has been a pleasant surprise in helping New York dominate the field position battle and pin opponents deep in their own territory. Place kicker Nick Folk has connected on all five field goal attempts this season, rounding out an outstanding showing by this unit. If the Jets want to keep things close on Sunday, they'll need Westhoff's crew to produce points in the form of a kick return, punt return or fake punt or field goal. Expect the unexpected with Tim Tebow playing personal punt protector and Westhoff's creative juices flowing.


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 without a winning record. The Niners consistently won the battle for field position with All-Pro punter Andy 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, and he has a 46.5-yard gross average in three games so far this year.

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 last year, 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 tied the NFL record by making a 63-yard field goal in the opener against Green Bay. Akers is 7 of 8 on field-goal attempts so far this season. In an embarrassment of riches, long-snapper supreme Brian Jennings also made the Pro Bowl last season, giving San Francisco a battery of specialists for the ages. Despite allowing a punt return for a TD against Green Bay, 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 missed the 49ers' first three games. Ginn practiced this week and could return against the Jets. Kyle Williams gave the Niners a boost last week on returns, breaking away for kickoff returns of 94 and 50 yards to go with a 16-yard punt return. Kendall Hunter also has been used on kickoff returns in place of Ginn.

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