Injury to Niners’ Star Rookie Threatens Newfound Winning Strategy

Elijah Mitchell

Getty Elijah Mitchell receives a handoff during the Week 2 win at Philadelphia.

It took more than half the season, but the San Francisco 49ers have figured out who they are. The only question that remains is will the Niners’ injury luck allow them to consistently be that football team?

The post-Thanksgiving Day injury report lists starting running back Elijah Mitchell as officially questionable for Sunday’s pivotal matchup against the Minnesota Vikings.

Mitchell’s designation does not just bring into question the star rookie’s status for a game with potentially major playoff implications — both teams are 5-5 and in the thick of a crowded race for three NFC Wildcard berths come January — but also threatens the specific style of play the Niners have employed to pull themselves back into the postseason race.

Niners Deploy ‘Top 40’ Strategy to Climb NFL Charts

GETTYRunning back Jeff Wilson Jr., of the San Francisco 49ers, celebrates with wide receiver Kendrick Bourne after scoring on a 25-yard touchdown reception against the Arizona Cardinals during the second half at Levi’s Stadium on November 17, 2019, in Santa Clara, California.

Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan has a new winning recipe that has changed the flavor of his team’s season over the previous two weeks.

According to a report by the San Jose Mercury, Shanahan decided prior to Week 10’s game against the Los Angeles Rams that 40 rushes per contest was the magic number his offense needed to establish both ball and clock control, limit mistakes and keep the opposing team’s defense on the field. The decision has been a boon for the Niners thus far.

San Francisco ran the ball 44 times against the Rams, amassing 156 rushing yards and earning a 31-10 win under the bright lights of Monday Night Football. The short week that followed did not impact the Niners’ backfield potency, as the team tallied 171 rushing yards on 42 carries the following Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars. That contest ended with the Niners on top 30-10.

Almost identical rushing efforts led to almost identical blowout victories, one at home and one on the road, against a top-level NFC and a bottom-level AFC opponent, respectively. The sample size is small but in passing’s golden era, San Francisco appears to have struck it rich with a return to a smash mouth style of football.

Niners Will Need Top RB Healthy For Tough Stretch Run

Elijah Mitchell

Getty Elijah Mitchell, of the 49ers, looks for an opening during San Francisco’s 33-22 road win in Chicago.

Rookie running back Mitchell has been a surprise and a revelation at the position this year — a surprise in his rise to the top of the depth chart as a fifth-round selection just shy of seven months ago, and a revelation in how consistently well he’s played when not sidelined by injury.

Mitchell has struggled with three different ailments this season: a shoulder injury that cost him two games earlier in the season, as well as rib and finger issues that set him down last Sunday in Jacksonville.

The rookie has carried the ball more than any other Niners’ back this season, rushing 116 times for a team-leading 560 yards to go along with 3 TDs, per ESPN. He shouldered the majority of the load against the big-name Rams defense, scampering for 91 yards on 27 attempts.

San Francisco made due without Mitchell last week, but the stat sheet indicates the formula they were forced to employ to replace him may not prove sustainable.

Wide receiver Deebo Samuel was the team’s leading rusher, not in attempts but in overall production, notching 79 yards and a TD on 8 rushes. Samuel has proven capable of carrying the ball, and will likely continue to do so in some capacity moving forward. But he’s also the team’s top wide receiver by a wide margin, and losing their best weapon in the passing game for the sake of the run isn’t something the Niners can afford — even with second-year wideout Brandon Aiyuk finally coming on over the last month.

The recently returned Jeff Wilson Jr. was the workhorse against the Jags last Sunday with 19 carries. However, his efficiency was low at 2.6 yards per attempt. For the 40-plus rush strategy to remain viable in the long-run, San Francisco must be able to essentially average a first-down (10 yards) every three handoffs. Mitchell has accomplished that, and then some, with an average of 4.8 yards per carry on the season. Wilson, however, is quite far from it.

Sunday against the Jags was Wilson’s first heavy game action since suffering a bizarre knee injury prior to the start of the season, and he was the team’s leading rusher one year ago. All that is to say the fourth-year running back still deserves the benefit of the doubt. But Wilson also carried the rock 10 times against the Rams the week before, totaling only 28 yards for an average of 2.8 yards per carry. If he can’t boost his yards per attempt in the next few games, it will be fair to wonder if he can shoulder the main workload in any future absence of Mitchell from the lineup.

The Niners’ third option at running back is another rookie, third-round pick Trey Sermon, who Mitchell beat out for starting honors after then-RB1 Raheem Mostert was lost for the season in Week 1 against the Detroit Lions. Sermon didn’t get a rush against the Rams when Mitchell was healthy. He carried the ball 10 times for 32 yards in Jacksonville and has a season-long average of 4.1 yards per carry on 41 attempts, per ESPN. He has also missed time this year due to injury.

San Francisco’s revamped run game has proven a reliable and winning strategy over the past two weeks, but the health of its top rusher has not. It may not matter as much in home contests still to come against the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans, but Mitchell will be a crucial component against the Vikings Sunday. The same is true for a difficult road schedule to finish the year, which includes matchups with the Seattle Seahawks, Cincinnati Bengals, Tennessee Titans and the Rams.

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