Elijah Mitchell injury altered course of game in 49ers loss

Elijah Mitchell #25 (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)
Elijah Mitchell #25 (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images) /

SF 49ers RB Elijah Mitchell’s injury changed the course of the Week 1 game vs the Chicago Bears

Relying heavily on an oft-injured player is a recipe for disaster, and the San Francisco 49ers are finding out how true that statement is with the latest Elijah Mitchell injury.

With a little more than 10 minutes left in the second quarter of the season opener, Deebo Samuel took a handoff from Trey Lance and banged his way into the end zone to give the Niners a lead and some normalcy on offense.

As it turns out, that was the last play for Mitchell who was ruled out for the remainder of the game with a knee injury. The 49ers only mustered three more points, in an embarrassing 19-10 loss to the Chicago Bears.

The void left in the backfield was noticeable once Mitchell left. Deebo tried to put on his wide-back cape and carry the load, but the results weren’t enough. This was a game the Niners needed to dominate on the ground and trust a running back worthy of 20 or more carries on the sopping wet Soldier Field.

42. 19. 57. Final. 10

Kyle Shanahan was growing more confident in Mitchell’s performance Sunday before the injury wiped him out. Even with the interior offensive lineman creating few open lanes, Mitchell was getting all the yards that were available. He had just rushed for a 15-yard gain a few plays before the Deebo touchdown.

Last year against these same Bears, the second-year back churned out 137 yards on 18 carries, and it seemed the Shanahan gameplan was built around the thought of a repeat performance.

Until we know the severity of the injury to Mitchell’s knee, which is scheduled for an MRI, the 49ers will have to use a running back-by-committee approach, finding someone worthy of at least 15 carries a game until Mitchell can get back healthy.

49ers should look to young runners with Elijah Mitchell injured

Jeff Wilson replaced Mitchell on Sunday with an underwhelming 22 yards on nine carries, with his longest run gaining only five yards. Wilson, who has also had his share of ailments, was a different runner in 2020 when he led the team in rushing yards.

He is no longer a player that should be starting on a team with a quarterback making his third NFL start or a below-average offensive line.

Third-round pick Tyrion Davis-Price and undrafted rookie Jordan Mason should battle who gets the carries while Mitchell is recovering. Deebo and Trey Lance will definitely split a good portion of running plays to start, but for the Niners to have success and keep true to their identity, they need one of the young runners to step up and take control.

Mason led the 49ers in rushing yards during the preseason and showed he had the juice to make plays in this zone-blocking scheme. There is no doubt the Shanahan scheme has turned many running backs from unknown status into overnight sensations and the Niners better find one soon if Mitchell is to miss significant time.

The entire 49ers offense suffered without Elijah Mitchell’s production

There will be games this year where it seems Deebo Samuel is the only rushing option needed, but banking on him to lead the team in rushing weekly is not a wise long-term strategy. The 49ers should be making Trey Lance as comfortable as possible and taking away one of his top receiving weapons in the passing game isn’t going to bring him any tranquility in the pocket.

Sure, it is nice to have a dynamic change-of-pace weapon like Deebo, but once the 49ers lost the lead, there was a real need to push the ball down the field and allow Lance to use his arm to create big plays. Without George Kittle suiting up and Deebo lining up in the backfield you have limited options who can beat their man and get open.

Once Mitchell was injured the whole offense had to adjust, and Trey Lance was unfairly asked to manage an unbalanced unit. The results were predictable and will continue if Mitchell is out for a while.

The 49ers have a good enough defense to win games, but their ability to control the time of possession with the run game will keep them in the thick of the NFC West race. Having Elijah Mitchell in the backfield makes that plan closer to reality.