A sometimes overlooked aspect of the game is special teams, but not this season, and not on 49ers.com. Each week, we'll feature Teams Talk, a column dedicated to special teams and those who play on them. These teamers will share their breakdowns of the upcoming opponent and give fans an idea of what to look for on gamedays.
Punter Andy Lee
I'm excited about it because I lived there and went to college back there, and it's one of only three cities I've ever lived in so it's a little like home. The Steelers did sign me to an offer sheet this off-season, but I was happy that the 49ers matched it and that I'm still here with the team. It's not always the easiest stadium to punt in at Monster Park, but neither is Heinz Field.
Since we are playing there early in the year, we should not have any adverse weather to deal with.
The Steelers ended up drafting a punter in Baylor's Daniel Sepulveda. I don't know too much about him, but I've heard he's got a very good leg and kicks the rugby style punt inside the 50 on pooch punts like I do. (I'll explain that later in this column.)
It's pretty tough to punt as a rookie in the NFL because there is so much more pressure. . It is not like in college where you have a bad game because you are not going to lose your scholarship over it whereas in the NFL, you could use your job with a bad enough game so that's a different perspective. Also, in the NFL we have to use the K balls on gamedays, and sometimes they are pretty good and sometimes they are horrible. You don't know what you are really going to get when you get out there to kick, so that can be a little different until you get used to it. There is definitely more speed too and you have to get the ball off a little quicker, but I think you can get that squared away in training camp and start feeling confident with that early-on.
So far, Sepulveda seems to have handled these nuances well.
Their kicker, Jeff Reed, has a good leg on both kickoffs and field goals. He's a veteran and has been an accurate kicker for him
For Joe Nedney and myself, we go out there and compete against their specialists and their teams unit just like our guys would on offense and defense. Joe and I want to do our best for our teams and make sure that overall we help out our special teams unit so that when the game ends, we know we capitalized on our opportunities and did everything we could to help our team win.
When I'm out there punting, a great thing for me is that my guys do such a solid job blocking for me up front. All I have to worry about is catching the ball from Brian Jennings and getting the punt off. Fortunately, I'm also very lucky that Jennings does such a good job as a snapper.
Catching his long snaps on both the punt and especially the hold is something we work on every day. I probably catch about 25-30 punts from him each practice and then another 25 balls that I get down for the hold. Holding on field goals is definitely the most nerve wracking because you've got to get it down so quick in order for your kicker to do his job. All you have to do is watch last year's Cowboys playoff game to know how a bad hold or snap can really be devastating.
Back to punting, last week I felt good about my kicks. Obviously, the 71-yarder was my best. If I knew how to do that on every punt that I'm back deep, I clearly wood but it's tricky. When I hit it, I knew I had hit it well but you never know exactly how long it will end up being. Our guys did a great job covering on that one, and on every one so far this year. They are taking a lot of pride in special teams and it's really showing on their coverage and effort down the field.
Back to that rugby style of kick I was talking about. That's something that in most stadiums I employ any time I cross the 50. When you are going into a strong wind, sometimes you have to alternate that kind of kick, which is the case most of the time at Monster Park. But in a rugby style kick, you drop the ball perpendicular so that it goes end over end, and usually you get a better bounce on those punts. On a normal punt, you just drop it flat so that it spirals. That's how Sepulveda punts, and that's the same for me.
Michael Robinson, Core Special Teams Player
Pittsburgh has a very, very physical team and that carries over to their special teams unit. They don't run anything we haven't seen, but what they do run, they run it well and that's not just special teams, that's all around. On teams, they don't try to do anything weird, they just do what they do, they do it well, they are physical and they play with a lot of leverage.
We've done a solid job up to this point on our coverage units, which is what we get paid to do. We haven't given up very much to the opposing returners and that's the way we expect it to go. We should take offense when someone gains big yardage on us because our goal is to be in the top of the league.
It's interesting for me because at first last year when I played on special teams, I hated it. HATED IT! But I realized how important it is in the game and this year, it's really showing up. Teams used to just key in on Keith Lewis and then late in the year on me, but now we've got a lot of guys who are really playing dominant football on special teams. We've got Jeff Ulbrich, Maurice Hicks, Marcus Hudson – all across the boards guys who really want to get out there and make plays. We start off the game on either kickoff or kickoff return and we want to show the other team that we came to play. We've improved on every aspect, and when we come off the field we are getting a lot of support from our teammates. They appreciate the help we are giving them out there on offense and especially on defense.
This week, we'll need to contain another top returner in Allen Rossum. He's a guy who takes what you give him. He's east-west until he sees the first lane and then he's going to turn it and when he does, he explodes. It will be important to do a great job of staying in our lanes, and defeating our one on one blocks.
I stay back deep with Hicks on the kickoff returns for us and we are also looking to hit it up in there. We really get hyped on every kickoff because we like to think that we are going to score. Frank takes most of the reps on offense so it's our chance to roll. Unless it happens to come my way in which case I concentrate on making the catch, I am back there making sure that Mo gets the ball and then we're off and running. It's my job to screen for him and whoever is in the way you have to deal with.
Some of the Steelers we are going to have to do deal with is Lawrence Timmons and #22. I played against Timmons in college and he's a tough guy. #22 is also a rookie and is usually the first one down on the kickoff. He does a great job of disrupting things.
Another aspect this week and every week is trying to get some turnovers when we are out there. Last week I was able to hit Dante Hall and get the ball out which was recovered by Hudson. That was big because it led to a quick three points. Unfortunately they got the best of us in points with a touchdown off of our muffed point, but ours at least allowed us to get the W. We'll go out there and try to make another big play to get us some points and help out the offense and defense. We feel like if we do that, we can really contribute to the final outcome.