It is beginning to feel a lot like — well, yes — Christmas in the Bay Area this week, but it is oddly beginning to feel a lot like the NFL preseason, as well.
The reason? The San Francisco 49ers held what amounted to running back tryouts on Tuesday, as an array of injuries have left their offensive backfield in shambles. Field Yates, NFL insider with ESPN, reported the news via Twitter on December 7.
“The 49ers worked out three running backs today: Jeremy Cox, Brian Hill and Dexter Williams,” Yates tweeted Tuesday afternoon. “Elijah Mitchell, Trenton Cannon, Jeff Wilson Jr. and Trey Sermon are all currently dealing with an injury, leaving JaMycal Hasty as the lone healthy RB on the roster.”
Injuries to Niners’ Running Backs run the Gamut
Starting running back Elijah Mitchell, a fifth-round selection in the 2021 NFL Draft and the second-leading rookie rusher in the NFL behind the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ Najee Harris, is currently navigating the league’s concussion protocol. Joining him on the list of Niners’ backs with head injuries is fourth-string rusher Trenton Cannon. Both were listed as questionable Tuesday.
Backup running back Jeff Wilson Jr., who has been disappointing since returning midseason from a bizarre knee injury he suffered during training camp, re-aggravated the issue in San Francisco’s 30-23 loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, December 5. He, too, is listed as questionable for the Niners’ road game this weekend against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Meanwhile, rookie RB Trey Sermon was placed on the injured reserve list (IR) last week with an ankle injury and will miss the next two games, at least.
The only Niners’ rusher listed as healthy heading into Sunday is JaMycal Hasty. But he — along with Mitchell, Wilson and Sermon — have all dealt with injury-plagued seasons almost from the very start of the year.
San Francisco’s opening-week starter, Raheem Mostert, went down after just two carries against the Detroit Lions with chipped knee cartilage and will not return until 2022.
Running Game is Crucial to Niners’ Success, Playoff Chances
The running game is crucial to the 49ers success, an unavoidable fact the team has proven over its last several weeks of play.
San Francisco started the season 2-4, but turned it around since then by winning four of six games and moving back up to a .500 record. If the NFC Playoffs began today, the Niners would be the 7th and final seed.
Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan found a new formula for winning when his team needed it most midseason, but now the injuries to his backfield have left it in peril. Funny thing is, the formula Shanahan found was actually an old one — one that feels almost dated in the pass-happy era of contemporary football. However, it’s also a strategy that is time-tested and has proven effective since the sport has been played.
According to a report by the San Jose Mercury, Shanahan decided prior to the Niners’ Week 10 matchup with the Los Angeles Rams that rushing the ball 40 times per game was the best recipe for success. And it has worked.
The Niners ran the ball 44 times that week, picking up 156 yards on the ground and earning a victory that probably saved their season. San Francisco took the same approach the following week, rushing the ball 42 times for 171 yards against the Jacksonville Jaguars. The 49ers won again.
The 49ers ran the ball 39 times against the Minnesota Vikings two weeks ago, gaining 208 yards and, you guessed it, earned their third straight victory. However, wide receiver Deebo Samuel went down in the third quarter of that game with a groin strain, causing him to miss Sunday’s matchup in Seattle. And while the absence of a wideout wouldn’t seem to be catastrophic for a team’s run game, it has proven to matter significantly.
Samuel was the team’s second-leading rusher after 12 games with 203 total yards, often carrying the ball 5 or more times for Shanahan and company. His direct contributions to the ground game aside, Samuel’s Pro-Bowl level play at the wide receiver spot kept teams honest and helped quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo right himself after a shaky start to the season.
In Samuel’s absence against the Seahawks, and with the slew of injuries that impacted the Niners’ running back personnel Sunday, the team amassed just 71 yards on 25 carries. The strategy was broken and at the same time, so was the winning streak.
The running backs the Niners worked out Tuesday don’t have a great deal of experience between them. Jeremy Cox played in just 7 games for the Denver Broncos in 2020 during his rookie season. Dexter Williams has been in the league for two years, both spent as a member of the Green Bay Packers, during which he has also appeared in a total of 7 games.
Hasty has proven serviceable, but a top back in the NFL he is not. The Niners will need one of the three RBs it brought in Tuesday to suit up and make an impact in Cincinnati, or the road to redemption following San Francisco’s lost season in 2020 will be considerably more difficult to traverse.