The San Francisco 49ers made some significant changes this week looking to get more positive returns.
Now it's up to running backs LaMichael James, Anthony Dixon and a few other newcomers in the role to provide them.
With their return game lagging near the bottom of the NFL rankings, the 49ers have entrusted a new set of players with bringing back kicks as they head into the November stretch run. The team released Kyle Williams and Perrish Cox on Tuesday, two players who had handled most of San Francisco's returns before last week's loss to Carolina.
Those roster moves were a result of the team's return shortcomings throughout the season. Williams ranked 25th in the NFL with a 5.1-yard average returning punts, had 20 fair catches and just two returns of more than 10 yards this year.
"It's something that we're taking very seriously," coach Jim Harbaugh said Friday. "Feel positive about it and had a good week of practice. Looking forward to this opportunity."
James and Dixon both settled into their new roles during a 10-9 setback to the Panthers. James took over for Williams on punt returns and Dixon took over returning kickoffs, where Williams previously had produced a 19.1-yard average as San Francisco's primary returner.
The lack of production has San Francisco 29th in the NFL this week in punt return average and ranked 27th in kickoff return average.
After Williams struggled returning kicks during San Francisco's Oct. 27 rout of Jacksonville in London, Dixon took his place returning kickoffs and ripped off a 47-yard return on his first try. He's eager now for opportunities on a regular basis.
"I always feel positive about guys getting chances, guys getting an opportunity to step up," Dixon said. "That's all that really happened here. I love Kyle and P-Cox, they were great teammates. But coaches decided to make changes, and like we always say, we have a deep team. I feel great about the opportunity I'm going to get, LaMichael's going to get, the other guys, and we're just going to keep rolling with it, keep fighting."
James, San Francisco's second-round draft pick last year, had been inactive in the previous three games before the 49ers activated him to bring back punts against Carolina. It was the first time he's handled a punt in the NFL after struggling to adapt to the role as a rookie.
But James displayed speed and elusiveness while returning three punts for 35 yards against the Panthers, including an 18-yard pickup. That apparently was enough for the 49ers to give James the role on a regular basis now that Williams is gone.
Cox had been one of San Francisco's top backups on returns and averaged 27.3 yards returning three kickoffs this season. Running back Kendall Hunter, who has experience returning kickoffs, also is in the return mix and the 49ers will give other untested players a shot at returning kicks. Cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Eric Wright both worked returning punts in practice this week.
"They're doing well," special teams coordinator Brad Seely said. "They're all guys that maybe haven't done it in a game, but they've practiced it up for us, so we've got some guys who are quality backup guys. We feel really good about LaMichael, I think he's improved greatly over the year he's been here. I'm encouraged and look forward to seeing them play."
San Francisco's return game was a strength during the first two seasons after Seely arrived with Harbaugh as part of a new coaching staff in 2010. But that's when the 49ers had explosive Ted Ginn returning kicks.
The 49ers opted not to re-sign Ginn when he became a free agent this year, and he gave them a firsthand look at what they've been missing this season during last week's game.
Ginn averaged 21.7 yards on three punt returns, including a key 25-yard return in the fourth quarter that set up Graham Gano's game-winning field goal that erased San Francisco's 9-7 lead.
That helped provide the 49ers and their new kick returners with a new sense of urgency.
"We definitely need to get better," Dixon said. "In every statistic, we need to get better. And every day that's what we're working hard to do, get better."
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