By Mark Gaughan
NEW ORLEANS - San Francisco has a great weapon in Super Bowl XLVII in punter Andy Lee.
He set the NFL single-season record for net punting average in 2011 by posting a 44.0-yard mark. He also has topped the 40-yard net average mark four of the past six seasons.
No NFL punter ever had broken the 40-yard net barrier until 2007. That year, Oakland Raiders punter Shane Lechler (41.1) and Lee (41.0) both did it. The next year four punters did it. In 2009 six did it. In 2010 it was three, in 2011 nine and this season 15 punters did it.
That's 39 times the 40-yard mark has been broken in the past six seasons after never having been cracked in NFL history.
"I think it's once something happens, then it goes crazy," Lee said. "There's been more speed on the coverage teams. So the returners are not able to run around guys as much maybe.
"The balls are really good. They’re getting a little better than when I first came in the league. They were getting real slippery and nasty. They’re a little better, which is good for us because you can catch ‘em they’re not slipping out of your hands. You get a good grip."
Perhaps the biggest factor: Punters are getting better at directional kicking, pinning return men near the sideline when the ball is caught. It makes coverage so much easier.
"I think punters are better," said Niners special-teams coach Brad Seely. "I think we're just in a golden age of guys who can really kick the ball a long ways, and they're doing a very good job of placing it on the field where it's easier for the coverage team to squeeze the return man.
"More directional punting has helped. I think the punters are kicking it farther, so you've got to do directional punting or you're going to be out there in space with a lot of field."
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