Linebacker Patrick Willis makes a point of thanking Andy Lee and the 49ers’ punt team for the fabulous field position the defense gets game after game.
“I’m there when they come off giving them a high-five and telling them how much I appreciate them,” Willis said. “Field position means everything in this game.”
San Francisco’s opponents know plenty about that.
Lee is a big part of why teams facing the 49ers are starting drives, on average, at the 24.3 yard line—which ranks San Francisco best in the NFL. He has been so reliable in recent memory that in the rare case when something goes wrong it’s a big deal.
Fresh off his first career NFC special-teams player-of-the-week honor days earlier, Lee had a punt blocked in the fourth quarter at Seattle on Saturday that could have cost San Francisco the game and a chance for the NFC’s No. 2 seed.
The Niners (12-3) wound up rallying for a 19-17 victory and can earn a first-round playoff bye with a win at St. Louis in Sunday’s regular-season finale. That blocked punt marked the first for Lee since 2008 and just the third in his eight-year NFL career.
Coach Jim Harbaugh credited his team’s poise to stay in the game.
“It just shows what kind of guys we have. If something bad happens, you just have to go out and overcome it,” Lee said. “That’s what we did this year in those situations and it’s worked out for us.”
Lee always expresses appreciation for long snapper Brian Jennings and his fellow special-teamers for the success. Coach Brad Seely has been a big part of it, too.
He has a close-knit group that takes pride in its role helping turn around the franchise, with Jennings noting, “it’s not a casual thing that we do.”
The blocked punt by Seattle linebacker Heath Farwell was alarming to say the least.
“It’s been awhile,” Lee said Wednesday of his last blocked punt. “We know what happened, but we won’t get into that. It’s not unbelievable but it’s a good thing. Me and Brian have a good operation, so a lot of times when something does go wrong, we get the ball off quick enough that some mistakes go without being blocked.”
That play is now all but forgotten after Lee received his third Pro Bowl selection Tuesday.
Lee is having his best season yet for the NFC West champions.
“I think I’ve had good years, but we can categorize this as the best because it’s the best numbers and with the 49ers going to the playoffs,” Lee said. “I’m hitting the ball well and a handful of punts have been a little longer than normal.”
Against the Rams, Lee will try to break his own single-season franchise record for both gross (47.8 in 2008) and net punting average (41.0 in `07). Lee is tops in the NFC and second in the NFL with a 49.8 gross punting average, and No. 1 in the NFL with a 43.5 net average.
His teammates appreciate the impressive kicking numbers.
“It means a lot any time you’ve got a guy like that,” linebacker Parys Haralson said. “Andy reverses the field. Any time you get a guy who punts the ball and you can pin off his side, back them up to their end zone or get them as far away from the end zone, it plays a large role in the defenses that can be called and the way that the defensive players can play, assuming you know how far they have to go.”
The 29-year-old Lee put on a punting show during a 20-3 victory Dec. 19 over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football. He averaged 47.5 yards per punt and of six punts, Lee booted four inside the 15 and three inside the 11. That gave the Steelers an average starting field position at their own 15.
Lee has made some minor adjustments this season, such as thinking through each situation to pick the best punting option.
“Andy’s always had a strong leg,” said Jennings, the only remaining player from the last 49ers playoff team in 2002. “This year has been a big step for him of really hitting the right ball in situations, the correct ball. There are times he needs to bang it down there 60 yards and there are times it would be better closer to the sidelines at 40 or 50 yards. I think that’s the thing this year that Seely has helped us with, to become a little bit more mature and manage the game better. That particularly has helped our defense.”
Lee has played in all 127 games since San Francisco selected him in the sixth round of the 2004 draft out of Pittsburgh.
“Andy Lee, you know that you can count on him,” running back Frank Gore said. “Since he’s been here he’s been the same guy, year in, year out. He handles his business and does a great job. That’s what I love about him.”