Two of the game’s best specialists will take the field in the desert on Monday night when the 49ers return to the road to face the Arizona Cardinals.
Earlier this week, Cardinals return man Patrick Peterson said Andy Lee was “probably the best punter in the National Football League right now,” and on Thursday Lee returned the favor.
“He’s arguably the best in the game right now,” the 49ers punter said.
Peterson has been held out of the end zone so far in 2012, but the second-year star is the definition of a home run threat. The cornerback returned four punts for touchdowns in 2011, causing many teams to try and pin Peterson to the sidelines with directional kicks this year.
“I think every team should,” Lee said. “Does that mean if you hit one down the middle of the field he’s going to return it for a touchdown? No, but it’s going to give him a better chance. It’s going to give him a better view of the field and give him more options than if you put him in a certain area.”
The 49ers return units have improved throughout the season, as evidenced by last week’s performance against Seattle’s Leon Washington, one of the premier return men in football. Washington returned just two punts for a total of five yards, the result of quality kicks by Lee and his coverage team.
“I think everybody’s starting to really jell together and play well together,” Lee said. “Learn what everybody’s going to do – whether it’s in protection or coverage – in all phases.”
Lee’s right thumb is wrapped in a silver protective guard these days, but it hasn’t stopped him from being one of the league’s top punters this season.
The reigning NFC Special Teams Player of Week, who pinned the Seahawks inside their own 15-yard line four times, revealed to reporters on Thursday that he’s been playing most of the season with a broken thumb. Lee suffered the injury after he tried to make a tackle on a punt return in Week 1 at Green Bay, bending his thumb backwards as he fell to the ground.
The broken thumb caused pain for Lee whenever he caught the ball before a punt or as a holder on field goal duties. But the Pro Bowler said his injury has improved a lot since the season opener, saying the silver splint is more of a precautionary measure.
“The thumb’s getting better, it’s pretty good now,” Lee said.
Peterson was held in check in two meetings against the 49ers last year, limited to 9.4 yards per return compared to his season average of 15.9. But last year’s 21-19 loss at Arizona still stands as the lone 49ers divisional defeat in the Jim Harbaugh era.
Perhaps the game would have been different had an ill-timed Arizona challenge not wiped out one of the best would-be trick plays for the 49ers in recent memory.
Facing a 4th and 7 from the Cardinals 32-yard line in the second quarter, Lee took a fake field goal attempt from his position at holder and rolled to his right, finding a wide open Jonathan Goodwin for what appeared to be a touchdown pass. Ultimately, the play was nullified by the challenge attempt, erasing a memorable touchdown catch for the 49ers center.
“Robbed of a touchdown, I’ll always be bitter about that,” Goodwin said with a laugh. “First time I’ve touched the ball, other than snapping it, since I was in high school. I’m still pretty bitter about that. Still want to file some type of complaint to someone and get my catch and touchdown back.”
Goodwin still has the video highlight of himself streaking down the right sideline untouched for the long touchdown reception, but said, “The highlight’s a lot better when it counts.”
Adding insult to injury, the previous play wasn’t reviewable because of replay equipment malfunction and Akers missed a 50-yard field goal on the next snap. The 49ers would go on to lose by 2 points.
“Maybe someday again,” Lee said. “I think that one’s in the books right now.”
Tags: Andy Lee, Patrick Peterson
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