Earlier this week, I put together a brief video breakdown of the 49ers-Packers matchup, focusing more on the offensive side of the ball (video below). I took a minute to talk about the x-factor for each team heading into this game, and for the 49ers I went with running back/kick returner LaMichael James. I had initially planned on discussing Colin Kaepernick, but decided James was a bit more under the radar on this topic.
Kaepernick is an x-factor given that he was not playing in the first game, but we know a lot more about him than we did at the beginning of the year. With LaMichael James, the film still remains limited. We have seen a lot of wrinkles with him, but he remains a developing weapon.
The most prominent work we have seen from James is a the team's kick returner. In four games, James has returned 14 kicks for 417 yards. That is an average of 29.8 yards per return, which would have been good for second in the league, had he qualified. Once I get a few minutes at the end of the season, I'm going to take a look back at all the 49ers kick returns to see how frequently James has been coming out of the end zone compared to Kyle Williams, Ted Ginn Jr. or Kendall Hunter or Delanie Walker. Those four have done some form of kick return work over the season. Kyle Williams was second most effective behind James, averaging 27.2 yards per return. Ginn averaged 23.0 yards per return.
The returning will be key in the battle for field position, but his work in the run and pass game could prove essential if the 49ers end up in any sort of shootout with Green Bay. In four games, James has rushed 27 times for 125 yards. In those four games, he had eight, eight, four and seven rush attempts.
I bring that up because as has been an issue before, Frank Gore's rushing average has been a bit up and down coming down the stretch this season. As Bill Barnwell pointed out in his divisional preview today, Frank Gore averaged 5.8 yards per carry through the first seven games, and finished the season averaging 4.7 yards per carry. In December, Gore rushed 82 times for 300 yards, averaging 3.65 yards per carry. In those five games, his averages were 2.5 @ STL, 5.3 vs. MIA, 4.0 @ NE, 4.7 @ SEA and 3.4 vs. AZ.
The rushing game is just one part of what James can do, but given what we've seen of him when he can get out in space, the 49ers will need solid work from him both this weekend and moving forward if the 49ers want to make some noise in January. Thankfully the 49ers do not need workhorse-type work from James on Saturday. He needs to provide solid spot work for Gore, but the key is the 49ers can use him in so many different ways to do that. He'll get his rushes, but his ability in the short-passing game provides an additional area. Getting LaMichael James the ball out in space is a recipe for excitement, and the 49ers will need plenty of that on Saturday.
I am extremely curious to see what the 49ers game plan has in store for LaMichael James. He provides a solid counter to the Packers use of Randall Cobb. While Cobb is listed as a wide receiver, he does a wide assortment of work. While Cobb has more experience than James, the 49ers edge comes in the lack of significant NFL game tape on James. This strikes me as arguably the most significant area where they can gain an edge on Saturday.