James helps 49ers coverage unit prepare for Sproles


NEW ORLEANS -- Leon Washington had nowhere to run. Patrick Peterson could not get anything going. Danny Amendola was swarmed. And Devin Hester, one of the top return men in the game, was held to negative yardage.The 49ers' coverage units appear to have things figured out after a rough beginning to the season."I was going in for extra meetings with (special teams coordinator) Brad Seely because I was unhappy with my play in the beginning of the season and I was trying to pick my game up," said Tavares Gooden, one of the team's core special-teamers.
Gooden has picked up his game. And he is not alone.C.J. Spillman is playing at a high level, and so are Tramaine Brock and Bruce Miller, as well as defensive standouts NaVorro Bowman and Dashon Goldson.Gooden credits the 49ers' improved play on special teams to chemistry."Guys have played a few games together," Gooden said. "The special teams units were basically separated due to some things going on in the offseason. We had four of five new guys on the team added, and we had to learn how to play off of each other. And I think we're getting better."The 49ers did not re-sign Blake Costanzo and Reggie Smith, two of the team's top contributors on special teams last season. And the team traded Colin Jones on the day of the final cuts."I knew we had the right coach," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "I knew we had the right guys on the teams. And I think that effort, that hard work, that creativity, opportunistic approach and just working together has paid off. Practice has made the guys better."In the past four games, Andy Lee's punts have been covered about as well as possible. Washington had five yards on two returns in the 49ers' win over Seattle. Peterson managed just 15 yards on four returns for Arizona. Amendola had three returns and totaled just 14 yards in the tie against St. Louis, and Hester had minus-1 return yard on three punt returns, as the 49ers blew out Chicago.During that time, the 49ers have allowed an average of just 20.9 yards on returns of David Akers' kickoffs.
The 49ers feel prepared to face explosive New Orleans Saints return man Darren Sproles because of a week of practice that included chasing around rookie running LaMichael James.James, a second-round draft pick, has not suited up for a game this season. At practice he wore No. 43, playing the role of Sproles, who is expected to return to action after missing three games with a hand injury."LaMichael James has been helpful," Gooden said. "If Sproles is playing, we'll be ready for him."He looks the same to me. Both of the guys are short and have those quick movements. He's been working with us all week running routes and getting us prepared."James is also benefiting from the experience, Harbaugh said."He's been a wide receiver a lot of times in practice and running back coming out of the backfield," Harbaugh said. "His hands have improved so much and his route-running ability. I think it was quite a good look for our defense this week with LaMichael."James struggled in training camp and in the exhibition season catching punts. When asked how he is doing in that discipline, Harbaugh answered, "He's still coming along, still coming along ... Kickoffs are a little easier than the punts."

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