The San Francisco 49ers are significant underdogs against the New Orleans Saints in Week 10, however, with wide receivers Brandon Aiyuk and Kendrick Bourne bolstering an injury-decimated team by returning from the reserve/COVID-19 list, their offense can at least be hopeful of producing enough plays to stay in the game, particularly after the impressive performance produced by Richie James in the blowout loss to the Green Bay Packers.
James took full advantage of the opportunity provided to him in Week 9 in the absence of Aiyuk, Bourne and Deebo Samuel, catching nine passes for 184 yards and a touchdown, making a compelling case for a greater role in the offense.
With Samuel still on the sideline because of a hamstring injury, James will be at least the third wide receiver on the depth chart against the Saints. Though much of his production in the Green Bay loss came when the game was already out of hand, the former seventh-round pick displayed the skill set to suggest he can add some much-needed dynamism to a banged-up offense that will need to perform at its peak for the Niners to have a chance of upsetting the surging Saints.
Here we look back on James' breakout game versus Green Bay and examine his potential role going forward in this week's edition of Niner in Focus.
The screen game
Samuel and Aiyuk add significant value in the screen game, which the Niners use as an extension of the running game. Their absences in Week 9 meant James was the primary target on wide receiver screens and he proved how dangerous he can be in the open field by eating up yardage on those plays.
On this 31-yard gain, James displayed some subtlety to his game, selling the downfield route to set up a River Cracraft block on the outside corner, springing him for a play that got the 49ers down to the Packers' 15-yard line.
Later, James demonstrated the vision to read his blocks on another screen play that ended with the 49ers inside the Packers' five-yard line.
The nuance he showcased on the first screen was prevalent on longer developing routes, James flashing route-running craft that was not a prominent feature of his first two seasons with the 49ers.
James has the speed to threaten defenses deep and rack up yardage after the catch in the open field. If he can develop into an accomplished route-runner, then his prospects of earning a more established role in the San Francisco offense will greatly improve.
The Niners will have been encouraged by his performance in that aspect against the Packers on both downfield and short routes, James doing an excellent job of attacking the outside leverage of Josh Jackson to open the middle of the field for an 18-yard reception from Nick Mullens.
In the fourth quarter, James created separation with his footwork, successfully selling a hard fake to the outside to break free from the coverage and gain 11 yards.
James' biggest plays of Week 9, however, came when he was able to get into open space as he averaged 14.8 yards per reception, according to the NFL's NextGen Stats.
It was clear as early as the first quarter that James would have the benefit of facing often poor pass coverage from the Packers. Yet what was impressive about this 43-yard reception was the way in which James shifted his run after the catch to the outside to help Cracraft set up his block and spring him for further additional yardage.
Another coverage breakdown in the fourth quarter saw James find the endzone for the first time in 2020. Though it was a routine throw for Nick Mullens, James still showed some elusiveness to evade the aggressive pursuit of the safety and stroll in for the score.
James cannot rely on facing lackadaisical coverage from backups on a weekly basis but his showing against Green Bay indicated he is a receiver who has the ability to create separation with his route-running as well as his speed and offers a substantial threat in the screen game because of what he can do after the catch.
A Saints defense that held the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to three points last time out should present a substantial test even to a slightly healthier Niners offense. A standout display in a competitive game with one of the NFC's best would go a long way to earning James the consistent targets last week's display suggested he deserves.
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