The San Francisco 49ers’ running game was largely effective in their stunning Week 1 loss to the Chicago Bears, but Kyle Shanahan must adjust his plans for the ground attack after Elijah Mitchell was sidelined for two months with a knee injury. .
Mitchell was San Francisco’s clear leader, but he missed time last year due to injury and immediately saw his second NFL season affected by greater durability issues.
Jeff Wilson Jr. is the RB2 on the 49ers’ depth chart and has experience thriving for San Francisco in Shanahan’s offense.
Still, Shanahan has rarely stuck to the depth chart and is likely to explore a number of solutions to ensure the Niners’ running game, which averaged 4.8 yards per carry against the Bears, remains highly productive.
Jeff Wilson Jr.
Wilson was listed as the lead back behind Mitchell for a reason. He spent four seasons in Shanahan’s offense and showed the ability to excel on zone drives and between the runs on gap drives.
He can also provide upside as a receiver out of the backfield, but his performance in tough conditions against the Bears could threaten his new top spot.
Wilson finished with 22 yards on nine carries, averaging 2.4 yards per carry, appearing to lack explosiveness in a disappointing performance.
The biggest threat to Wilson getting a heavy workload is a player who isn’t technically listed as a position player.
After all the talk about Samuel not wanting to operate as a wide receiver-running back hybrid as his contract saga with the 49ers rumbled on, he was San Francisco’s most effective ball carrier outside of Mitchell on Sunday.
Samuel averaged 6.5 yards per carry and scored the 49ers’ only touchdown on a red-zone carry in the second quarter. Samuel excelled at running around the rim, receiving the ball from split sets in plays that often involved motion, and offered the same big upside play out of the backfield that was crucial to the 49ers’ last run to the NFC Championship Game. season.
The Niners may not want to rely so heavily on running back Samuel in 2022, but if their other backs can’t deliver, they may not have a choice.
And there’s another prominent non-running back who makes a huge impact on the ground game.
More Trey Lance runs
Lance had plenty of hits in the opening game of his first season as the 49ers’ starting quarterback. He took most of that punishment for scrambles after the pocket collapsed and quarterback plays to keep drives alive.
But he also showed the ability to pick up significant yardage with his legs and even make defenders miss in the open field, finishing the game as the 49ers’ leading rusher with 54 yards on 13 carries.
Although Lance’s dual-threat prowess was part of the reason they drafted him, the 49ers likely won’t see that as a winning formula.
The red zone is where Lance is most dangerous as a runner, but an injury to Mitchell could lead to the 49ers leaning more on designed runs for their quarterback, with zone-read plays and running options that could involve him and Samuel. destructive weapons for San Francisco to use.
The rookie returns
Undrafted free agent Jordan Mason was active against the Bears but didn’t catch a single carry despite a hugely impressive preseason that earned him a roster spot.
He and third-round pick Tyrion Davis-Price, who was inactive in Chicago, now both have opportunities to carve out roles in the backfield. Mason runs with excellent burst and contact balance, while Davis-Price is a backup who can also get top speed in a rush but has a bit more of an elusive game.
Shanahan, on the 49ers Webzone, said it’s pass protection that will determine which of the two first-year backs gets on the field.
He said: “They are two talented players who we think can help us a lot running the ball, but they have to grow up quickly. They are trying to compete and learn to play better without the ball in hand.”
The college record would suggest Davis-Price has the edge in that area, but if neither takes advantage of their opportunities, the 49ers added a potential contributor to the practice squad on Tuesday.
Mack gives the Niners veteran depth at running back and a player who has no shortage of success in the NFL. Between 2018 and 2019, Mack racked up 1,999 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground.
However, he has played in just seven games since then and was cut by the Houston Texans before the start of the season. Still only 26, the Niners will hope Mack still has some left in the tank, but San Francisco would be better served by another running back turning the former Indianapolis colt into a luxury rather than a necessity.