The San Francisco 49ers welcomed LaMichael James back to the field this past Sunday when they defeated the San Diego Chargers 21-7. LMJ split time with Bruce Ellington as the kick returner and punt returner. Additionally, he was the third running back off the bench, following Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde.
James did not have huge numbers on the day, but one area where he had great success was in pass protection. Following the game, Blaine Gabbert praised his blitz pickup saying, "He did a tremendous job. And there were a couple times he's 1-on-1 with the linebacker and the linebacker's blitzing the A-gap and he stepped right up, cut him down a couple times and stuck some D-linemen on some pass pro too." On Monday, Jim Harbaugh talked about how James' improvement. "He's definitely improved. He's always been a tough kid. He'll always stick his nose in there. Amount of reps and technique and fundamental and coaching and seeing it, he's improving."
LMJ was getting his first game action since dislocating his elbow, but it did not seem to stop him from handling his business against linebackers and blitzing defensive backs. After the game, LMJ discussed his work in pass protection:
"Everybody who doubts me, I take it personal. It's something I really want to work on. Ever since I got here, without pass blocking a lot at Oregon, it was probably one of the weakness in my game in the beginning. So I take it very serious."
When asked if it's still a weakness in his game, James answered, "Nope. It's not to me. I'm going to go out there and keep doing what I do. I'm not going to say I'm the best pass blocker, yet. But I'm much-improved."
James had several plays where he did a great job in pass protection. I created some GIFs of each one, highlighting James and the player he would be blocking:
This first situation comes after the 2-minute warning in the second quarter. The block allows Gabbert to roll to his right and connect with Vance McDonald for a 17-yard pick-up.
This second block comes at the 1:52 mark of the second quarter. Gabbert has a quick 3-step drop before the slant pass to Bruce Ellington. LMJ's block on the defensive lineman buys Gabbert the extra second he needs to get the pass off without a hand in his face.
This third block came with 50 seconds left in the second quarter. LMJ is lined up at running back, and Vance McDonald is to his left in a fullback role. Gabbert runs the play action fake to James, who then gets a quick block on No. 58. It's not as physically big as the first two blocks, but it's important in keeping the defender out of Gabbert's face. Gabbert probably could have gotten the pass off if LMJ whiffed on the block, but we didn't need to find out if he would have.
This final block sees James pick up the blitzing defensive back coming from the right side of the field. LMJ was set to look to the stronger side of the defense, and that allowed him to see the defensive back and easily send him end-over-end.
It remains to be seen how involved LMJ will be in the 49ers offense this year. We know he'll be getting return work, but we do not know what the next step is for him in this offense. For past running backs, struggles in pass protection cost them. LMJ proved in his first game back that he is game for some serious pass blocking. Hopefully the 49ers can figure out some creative ways to work him into the offense on a more regular basis.