Why 49ers' run game without Trey Lance, Elijah Mitchell still can work

·4 min read

Why 49ers' run game still can work without Lance, Mitchell originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

SANTA CLARA -- Just like a season ago, the 49ers lost their top running back to injury in Week 1 when Elijah Mitchell sprained his MCL in a loss to the Chicago Bears. The 49ers are expected to be without Mitchell for the next two months, as opposed to when they lost Raheem Mostert for the rest of the season.

The wrinkle this time comes from losing another running option, one at quarterback.

After carrying the ball 13 times in the opener, QB Trey Lance's season came to a close Sunday on his third rushing attempt of the first quarter when he was smashed and broke his right ankle. With Lance behind center, the 49ers pounded the Seattle Seahawks on the ground in their 27-7 Week 2 win on Sunday at Levi's Stadium.

Same goes when Lance went down, with a bit of a different look.

"They ran the ball well and when you run the ball and we can't stop it, it's going to be a long day," Seahawks defensive end Quinton Jefferson said.

Jeff Wilson Jr. stepped in for Mitchell as the 49ers' lead back and did what he usually does when given an opportunity to start. Wilson carried the ball 18 times for a game-high 84 yards, averaging 4.7 yards per carry. He now has started 10 games in his career, including one where he was knocked out in the first quarter to a shoulder injury, and has gained 816 yards on the ground over 170 carries. That's good for 81.6 rushing yards per start and 4.8 yards per carry.

For comparison's sake, Mitchell last season averaged 87.5 rushing yards per game over 11 games (10 starts) and 4.7 yards per carry.

Wilson played 50 percent of the 49ers' offensive snaps in the win. He had multiple runs off tackle that went for more than 10 yards and should be a reliable goal-line option as well. Even when he missed half the season last year, he ranked second on the 49ers in red-zone carries.

"The 49ers run that outside zone stuff better than any team in the NFL," Jefferson said. "They've perfected it, it's one of those things. You have to be disciplined. A lot of it is we have to make tackles.

"We had too many opportunities to make tackles in the backfield, and when you get those opportunities you have to get them to the ground."

How badly did the 49ers make the Seahawks miss tackles? They ran for 189 yards, and per ESPN Stats & Info, 113 came after first contact. That's the most yards after first contact in a game by the 49ers since ESPN began tracking video in 2009.

"We laid an egg today as far as stopping the run," Seahawks linebacker Jordyn Brooks said. "Didn’t tackle well, didn’t get off blocks well."

The most impressive run of the day, one that should have been stopped yards behind the line of scrimmage, belongs to 49ers receiver Deebo Samuel. As only Samuel can do, it turned into a 51-yard gain.

With Lance out for the season, Samuel might have to take his wide-back role to a new level. In reality, he's the 49ers' best option with the ball in his hands, regardless of where he is on the field. He'll get his short passes and quick screens, working his magic and making the defense look like fools. Don't be surprised if No. 19 is in the backfield even more often, too.

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Jimmy Garoppolo said conducting the 49ers' offense again after coming in for the injured Lance was like riding a bike. That includes his ability to get the job done on the ground in the short game, which he displayed Sunday on a 1-yard touchdown plunge.

There was one change, however. A QB keeper on a read-option?

"Yeah, that was a new one," Garoppolo said with a laugh.

The 49ers came into the season looking to form a new identity with Lance as their quarterback. They'll have to quickly shift gears with Garoppolo back at the helm, and it all starts on the ground -- an area they had success with on Sunday, and have a long history of doing so in the past.

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