Week 1 of the 2022 NFL season wasn’t a good one for the San Francisco 49ers or their fans.
The team lost to the Chicago Bears at wet and rainy Soldier Field on Sunday, 19-10, as Trey Lance put forth a mixed-bag performance.
It was a disappointing outing, but one that was constructive and gave fans enough reason for hope moving forward.
But something much worse happened, as running back Elijah Mitchell went out of the game in the second quarter with an apparent knee injury.
To that point, he was playing well, having rushed for 41 yards on just six attempts.
On Monday, the bad news came – Mitchell has suffered a sprained MCL that is expected to keep him out of game action for two months.
49ers’ RB Elijah Mitchell is expected to be sidelined about two months with the sprained MCL that he suffered Sunday at Chicago, per league sources.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) September 12, 2022
This is a significant blow to the 49ers’ hopes of winning the Super Bowl, although it’s not exactly a fatal one.
Mitchell Is The Most Important Part Of The 49ers’ Running Attack
Unlike many teams in today’s NFL, the 49ers love to run the football, and head coach Kyle Shanahan has an established history of putting his running backs in position to succeed, just as his father, Mike Shanahan, had done years earlier as the coach of the Denver Broncos.
Mitchell emerged last season as a rookie, running for 963 yards and five touchdowns despite missing six games due to injury.
Here’s how rookie Elijah Mitchell finished the regular season among all running backs:
• 963 yards rushing (8th)
• 765 yards after contact (5th)
• 29 explosive runs – runs over 10 yards (4th)
• 0 fumbles (1st)
Keep in mind he only played in 11 games 🤯 pic.twitter.com/JCaSmyHRth
— Coach Yac 🗣 (@Coach_Yac) February 5, 2022
Ironically, it was an injury to Raheem Mostert, the team’s former RB1, that opened up that opportunity for Mitchell.
Shanahan had high hopes for Mitchell this season, but now, they have seemingly gone up in smoke.
Without him, the 49ers’ running game will be seriously depleted, and it has the potential to hurt their passing game as well.
In the second half on Sunday versus the Bears, Lance’s passing accuracy plunged big time as he had trouble finding open receivers downfield, something he was able to do well enough until midway through the third quarter.
Plugging The Hole
Luckily, the 49ers have depth in the backfield.
All-Pro wide receiver Deebo Samuel often lines up as a running back, and in doing so on Sunday, he had 52 yards and a touchdown on eight attempts.
Lance gained 54 yards himself with his legs, including six first downs.
But unless a true running back on the depth chart emerges as a threat, defenses will be able to pressure Lance while having other defenders drop back in coverage without having to worry about a workhorse back such as Mitchell ramming the ball down the middle.
It will presumably be up to Jeff Wilson Jr. to replace Mitchell as the team’s top tailback.
He didn’t do well on Sunday, posting just 22 yards on nine attempts, but he has been productive in the past for the 49ers.
Just two seasons ago, he had 600 yards, seven touchdowns, and a 4.8-yard-per-attempt average in 12 contests.
Mitchell’s injury will be a stiff test of the team’s depth and resourcefulness.