49ers shoring-up leaky special teams

Published: Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012 - 2:28 pm

SANTA CLARA – Punter Andy Lee has been wearing a brace on his right hand since breaking his thumb while diving to tackle Green Bay punt returner Randall Cobb in Week 1.

Cobb went on to score a 75-yard touchdown, and Lee's bandage has become symbolic of a 49ers coverage unit that has struggled this season after being one of the league's best last season. The 49ers rank 28th in punt return coverage, 31st in kick return coverage.

But in recent weeks, Lee's thumb – and the 49ers' special-teams coverage – have begun to heal.

Last week against Seattle, the 49ers held Leon Washington to 2.5 yards per punt return, and Lee pinned the Seahawks inside their 20-yard line four times, including on Seattle's ill-fated final drive.

On Monday night, the group will test its resurgence against perhaps the best returner in the game, Arizona's Patrick Peterson. As a rookie last season, Peterson returned four punts for touchdowns and led the league in punt return yardage.

Peterson said he hopes Lee, a fellow Pro Bowl player, doesn't shy away from him like recent opponents have done.

"They're not giving me a chance, honestly," Peterson said this week. "They're putting the ball close on the sidelines so they can … kind of bottle me and vise me up on the sideline vs. giving me the whole field to work with."

The tactic may be timid, but it's been effective.

Just like last year, Peterson leads the NFL in punt return yards – 229 through seven games. But his average, 8.8 yards, puts him in the middle of the pack, and he hasn't had any of the explosive returns that marked his rookie season. In fact, his longest return this year is just 26 yards.

Lee, meanwhile, is known for his booming punts, the kind that put returners on their heels but also give them some room to roam. Last year he set an NFL record by netting 44 yards per punt. He also began to kick more directional punts last year, and he said the approach Monday will be similar to the one against Seattle's Washington on Oct. 18.

"Does it mean that if I hit one down the middle of the field he's going to return it for a touchdown? No," Lee said. "But it's going to give him a better chance. It's going to give him a better view of the field. It's going to give him more options."

The 49ers' coverage players also bounced back against the Seahawks.

Many have attributed early-season lapses to the departure of Blake Costanzo, last year's unofficial coverage captain who signed a free-agent deal with the Chicago Bears.

Costanzo finished second on the squad with 17 special-teams tackles, and moreover he had an infectious personality and supercharged energy that seemed to fuel the 49ers.

Special-teams coach Brad Seely, who also coached Costanzo at Cleveland, said any team would miss someone with his talents but stopped well short of saying there's no one to step forward to fill Costanzo's leadership role.

"I don't think you can ever pinpoint, 'We're missing a guy here' or 'We're missing a guy there,' " Seely said. "We always talk about 11 guys going out there and doing their job. At times, maybe we haven't been as good as we'd like to be. But I don't think there's any kind of leadership void."

The standouts this year have been Demarcus Dobbs, who leads the special teams with six so-called knock-down blocks, and Tavares Gooden and Tramaine Brock, who lead in tackles.

Brock saved a touchdown earlier this year when he chased down Buffalo's Leodis McKelvin on a kick return. He also made the tackle against the Seahawks' Washington that stuck Seattle's offense in the shadow of its own end zone with less than two minutes to play.

"It was a really good performance by our guys," Seely said. "I think in other games, at other times, we haven't been as good. I've got to give a lot of credit to those returners. We've played against a lot of really good returners. But I think last week we stepped it up, just like we'll have to do (Monday) because we're playing another great returner."

Goldson fined – The NFL fined safety Dashon Goldson $7,875 for taunting Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch last week. The day after the game, coach Jim Harbaugh said – with a straight face – Goldson merely was exhorting teammate Justin Smith, who was next to Lynch on the bottom of the pile.

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