When the San Francisco 49ers needed a running back to help them close out the Dallas Cowboys and run down the clock on the way to a Week 20 victory, Kyle Shanahan didn’t turn to Christian McCaffrey, his former All-Pro back who went for 1,000 yards in his first season in gold and red, but instead Elijah Mitchell, the 2021 sixth-round pick out of Louisiana who spent two stints on IR in 2022.
While Cowboys fans may have been confused by this decision, as the game was very much still late in the fourth, for the 49ers, giving the ball to Mitchell was a no-brainer, as the second-year pro is sort of an “X factor” for the team, as Kyle Juszczyk pointed out in his post-game media session.
“Elijah gives us a different look,” Juszczyk said via 49ers WebZone. “It’s huge. Elijah is a true X factor. When he can come in fresh and relieve Christian like that and bring that power and tenacity, he never hesitates. It’s one of my favorite attributes about him is he just goes out there, and he hits it. And that one-two punch is deadly. It really is.”
Facing off against a Dallas defense that many, including McCaffrey, have called one of the best the Niners faced all season, Mitchell actually led all players, regardless of team, in rushing yards at 51, averaging 3.64 yards on each of his 14 carries. Though Mitchell may not get the same international acclaim as McCaffrey and is the 49ers’ clear RB2, Mitchell has proven John Lynch’s decision to trade Jeff Wilson to Miami right, as he’s proven a more than capable second punch.
Kyle Shanahan Explains the San Francisco 49ers’ Rushing Success
The 49ers’ rushing efforts in Week 20 against the Cowboys were, shall we say, inconsistent. Typically one of the best-rushing teams in the NFL, who finished eighth in the regular season with 2,360 yards, according to Pro Football Reference, the Niners were held to under 100 yards on the ground against Dallas and didn’t really get things going until the second half.
When asked about what the Niners changed from the first quarter to the second in his media session, Shanahan gave an honest assessment of his playcalling choices.
“We didn’t change much up,” Shanahan said. “We just kept mixing runs up and broke a couple, got a couple lanes. I don’t know I think we had like eight runs or something the first half, I forget but we didn’t get a ton of opportunities with it. Just play calls and when you run the ball and you don’t get any first downs running the ball, that’s usually what happens. In the second half, especially that long drive, it was like 13 plays or something, we got a number of first downs running the ball on first and second and when you do that, it’s easier to stay with it. Then when you do that, it’s easier to wear them down. That’s a real good D-line and they move around so much that they’re tough to block, but if you can wear them down a little bit, then you got a chance and it took us all game to do that.”
In the NFL, it’s a lot easier to run the ball when a team has a lead. After going ahead at the half, the 49ers were the beneficiaries of a second bad pick from Dak Prescott and rode the momentum all the way to a one-way ticket to South Philadelphia for the NFC Championship game.
Christian McCaffrey Complements the Dallas Cowboys’ Defense
Searching for another perspective on the 49ers’ inconsistent rushing offense, reporters asked McCaffrey what he thought of Dallas’ defense. Fresh off his first-ever NFC Championship appearance, McCaffrey complimented Dan Quinn’s unit for their athleticism and prowess, before pointing out when San Francisco earned the advantage.
“Yes, it’s a good defense. They play hard. They fly to the ball, they tackle well. They definitely caused some problems for us early. I was happy with the way our guys just responded and kept going one play at a time and had a couple long, really good drives there in the second half that changed the momentum of the game. But it’s definitely a good defense that we played.”
Unfortunately for McCaffrey, his road won’t get any easier in Week 21, as the Eagles also have one of the best defenses in the NFL, with an edge rusher in Haason Reddick who may give Nick Bosa a run for the Defensive Player of the Year honors.