The San Francisco 49ers head into their Week 10 matchup getting an infusion of talent with the return of injured players. The return of Mario Manningham could lead to some adjustments in the passing game. The return of Aldon Smith means a boost to the pass rush. Adding in Tank Carradine and Eric Wright means greater depth.
And yet, one area we could see some changes simply by re-shuffling is in the return game. The 49ers special teams coverage units have done good work, but the return game has been mediocre at best. The team ranks 27th in kick return average and 28th in punt return average. Football Outsiders ranks the kick return unit dead last, and the punt return unit ranks 24th. Not exactly inspiring.
The 49ers have returned 17 kickoffs and 12 punts this season. Kyle Williams has handled most of the work, but has not been able to make a big impact. He's had some nice returns, but more often than not he's been fairly limited. Two weeks ago against the Jaguars, Anthony Dixon was given a shot in the return game, and he brought a late kick back 47 yards. It was actually his third kick return of the season, with one for 30 yards and another on a squib kick.
Dixon had a chance to discuss his return work with the media, and he sounds excited to take on more opportunities. He wouldn't confirm whether or not he was going to get more kick returns, as the 49ers obviously want to keep things hush-hush on most every matter.
In the punt return game, there has been some chatter here about LaMichael James getting some opportunities. Kyle Williams leads the league in fair catches, and while some fair catches are understandable, it does seem at times like he is overly conservative.
After Wednesday's practice, LaMichael James was spotted getting in some work catching punts. The 49ers will have six healthy inactives on Sunday, along with Quinton Patton. James has been inactive much of the season. Is the time finally arriving for James as a punt returner? Williams is coming off a game in which he struggled mightily to return the ball. He had ball control issues, and he made a particularly poor decision on a ball going out of bounds.
At what point do the 49ers make a change? Will we see Anthony Dixon and LaMichael James this weekend returning kicks and punts?