LaMichael James 49ers punt return

Tampa Bay should’ve won in Seattle, but they couldn’t hold a 21-point lead. As for why they couldn’t, one could point to the Seahawks playing outstanding defense and converting 7-of-8 third downs in the second half and overtime, or just take it as another example of the Bucs being the Bucs.

But one wouldn’t be wrong in crediting Golden Tate. Not Golden Tate the brash, taunting wide receiver … Golden Tate the punt returner.

The Bucs were in a shaky spot late in the third quarter, but things could’ve been worse. Leading 24-14, they punted from their own 44. Michael Koenen sent a punt 52 yards to the Seahawks’ 4-yard line. Tate, instead of playing it safe, broke several tackles en route to a 71-yard return.

The Seahawks’ only failure on third down after the second quarter occurred on the ensuing possession, leading to a 36-yard field goal to move within one score. However, Tate’s gamble had a ripple effect. Koenen kicked his next two punts out of bounds. The first wasn’t so bad, 42 yards to Seattle’s 25. The second was a 30-yard dud that set up the Seahawks at their 41-yard line. Ten plays later, Russell Wilson threw a touchdown to Doug Baldwin to tie the game.

Koenen kept his last two punts in the field of play. Tate had a 13-yard return near the end of regulation and an 8-yarder that put the Seahawks at their own 40 in overtime. Six Marshawn Lynch runs and one Wilson pass to Baldwin later, and the Seahawks were in position to kick a short game-winning field goal.

Enough about the Seahawks

Sorry to spend so much time complimenting Tate; I was in Seattle over the weekend and watched the Bucs battle the Seahawks from beginning to end in a hotel room. At least Tampa Bay made the bye week interesting for those who primarily follow the 49ers, even if their choke job seemed inevitable from the moment the Bucs were called for penalties on three consecutive plays for 59 yards(!) during the Seahawks’ first touchdown drive.

Anyhoo, let’s move on to some Kyle Williams bashing. The guy just gets too much credit these days — someone needs to knock him down a peg.

Unfortunately for Williams, the 49ers have few obvious weaknesses. Everyone knows they can gain yards on the ground. They attempt fewer passes than anyone else, but they’re getting reinforcements at receiver and they’re seventh in the NFL in yards per pass attempt. The defense is fourth in points allowed, sixth in yards, third in third down conversions, and they force plenty of turnovers. Phil Dawson and Andy Lee? No problems there. The coverage units have been outstanding. They even stopped committing so many penalties.

Enough stalling, we all know where this is going …

  • Kickoff return average: 21.1 yards (27th)*
  • Punt return average: 5.1 yards (28th)
  • Fair catches: 20 (1st)

*Without Anthony Dixon’s 47-yard return against Jacksonville the average drops to 19.4, which would drop the 49ers to 30th.

Bye-ding time

In the first half of the season the 49ers did two things well: they went into the bye week after five straight convincing wins over beatable teams, and they went 6-2 despite a roster they knew would be weaker than required to get back to the Super Bowl.

The two-week midpoint has been a busy one for San Francisco. They welcomed back Aldon Smith, activated Tank Carradine, Mario Manningham and Eric Wright, and waived Marlon Moore, Nate Stupar and Nnamdi Asomugha.

Besides preparing for the Carolina Panthers, the 49ers are working on getting better in all phases. In most cases that means improving incrementally, but it’s clear the team’s return game simply wasn’t working. By and large the team played fairly conservatively over the season’s first eight games by design, but every group found ways to make big plays besides the special teams units that received the ball.

The 49ers got away with it because they played an easy schedule after Week 3, but there’s no discernible reason to go into Week 9 without making some changes. Jim Harbaugh voluntarily mentioning LaMichael James during his last press conference — which happened to take place after Williams’ worst second worst game as a returner — could give us a clue as to what those post-bye adjustments might look like.

A returner’s primary responsibility is maintaining possession. But doing the bare minimum isn’t what the 49ers are shooting for, and Williams couldn’t even do that in London. Last year San Francisco gained 3.7 yards more per kickoff return and 5.4 yards more per punt return compared to their previously mentioned 2013 averages. It’s difficult to make much hay on kickoffs these days with so many resulting in touchbacks, but only three teams force more punts per game than the 49ers. They surely don’t want to continue letting those opportunities go to waste.