Andy Lee Feels at Home in a Dome


There's good reason for Andy Lee feeling at home in the Georgia Dome.

For one, the Westminster, S.C. native will be playing two hours from his childhood home. The San Francisco 49ers three-time Pro Bowl punter also expects to have a solid turnout of friends and family to support him in Sunday's NFC Conference Championship Game against the Atlanta Falcons.

But even better for the nine-year veteran, playing in a dome is the best possible scenario for the 49ers punter if the team is unable to play at Candlestick Park.

"If you want to take any positive of not having a home playoff game," Lee began to say, "you might as well go to a dome. That speaks for itself."

Wind and inclement weather will not be an issue for the 49ers special teams units on Sunday, it'll also allow respected special teams coordinator and assistant head coach Brad Seely even more of an advantage when game planning for Atlanta.

"Anytime you have a place where you know what the weather's going to be like, it helps you tremendously because a lot of it is mental," explained linebacker Tavares Gooden, who finished the regular season with 13 tackles on special teams. "Sometimes with those wet games, it can throw you off. Playing in the dome, you can prepare and put together a gameplan without the weather having an effect on the game."

Lee, too, figures to have a big impact on the game should the 49ers offense fail to convert third-downs. The punter who set the NFL's single-season net punting average in 2011, followed up a Pro Bowl year with a solid 48.1 punting average. Last week, Lee averaged 44.3 yards per punt against the Green Bay Packers.

In the mind of long snapper Brian Jennings, 2012 might stand as the best season in Lee's consistently productive career.

"I think this is arguably his best year because he was battling a hand injury," said Jennings, referring to the broken thumb Lee suffered in Week 1. "He was able to keep his performance where it was supposed to be… It was a very impressive year working with Andy."

Lee finished the season with 46 punts inside the 20-yard line and a net average of 42.0. The talented punter credited his coverage team for another strong season. Furthermore, Lee believes Atlanta's indoor environment will only aid San Francisco's speedy coverage units.

"I can't thank them enough for what they're doing," Lee said. "They've been great. I've said it before, whether it's Brian snapping the ball, the guys protecting or the guys covering, it makes my job a lot easier when all I have to do is worry about punting the ball."

The 49ers will have to rely on regular season film study to scout Falcons punt returner Dominique Franks. The third-year cornerback did not field a punt in last week's Divisional Playoff win over the Seattle Seahawks, but did return 21 punts for 163 yards in the regular season (7.8 yards per return).

Besides having to switch field position in the event of a 49ers punt, Lee's focus will be on holding for kicker David Akers.

In that regard, Lee was pleased with Akers' focus and execution in last week's playoff win over the Green Bay Packers.

"I think Dave went out and did a great job, all the guys had support for him," Lee said.

After competing with Billy Cundiff all week for the right to kick in the Packers game, Akers went out and converted a 36-yard field goal, six extra points and kept Green Bay's talented return man Randall Cobb in check with deep kick-offs. Cobb averaged just 17.8 yards on his four returns.

Besides Akers, San Francisco's specialists will also use last year's postseason experience to help them the second time around in the conference championships.

"Last year I tried to go into it like a Monday night game, a big game. I was nervous last year," Lee admitted. "This year, it's, 'I can do that.'

"It's not any different than any other game; it's just a big game that you have to do your best."

Jennings agrees. The approach for this week's big game is much improved team-wide.

"I definitely feel like last year helped us, a lot of guys hadn't played in playoff games," Jennings, the longest tenured 49ers player said. "I think it helped us prepare. We're more of a mature group. I guess it sounds cliché to me to say we're mature from our experience but I absolutely think it's true."

It also helps playing inside.

"It's nice to not have to worry about elements of weather when you're handling the ball for a living," Jennings said. "It's nice that they're off the table."

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