The San Francisco 49ers‘ identity is pretty simple. They deploy a punishing rushing attack and play physical defense. The running game is rolling right now, but a surprising name has led the charge. Elijah Mitchell was an unknown coming into the NFL, but he’s already making a name for himself in the 49ers’ offense. The rookie owes a lot of his skills to hours of watching Barry Sanders highlights over the years.
Elijah Mitchell has been a pleasant surprise for the 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers entered the 2021 NFL season as a run-first football team. It’s still been that way, but the player doing most of the running came out of nowhere.
Raheem Mostert started the season as the No. 1 running back in San Francisco. The veteran suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1 against the Detroit Lions.
It was unclear how Kyle Shanahan would approach the situation, but he commonly utilizes a running back-by-committee approach. However, Elijah Mitchell quickly emerged as the lead back for the Niners.
When Mostert went down early, Mitchell stepped in admirably. He rushed for 104 yards and one touchdown on 19 carries against Detroit.
Mitchell has shown consistency when given opportunities. He’s carried the ball 143 times for 693 yards and four touchdowns. The rookie has reached the 100-yard mark four times in 2021. Mitchell ranks 11th in the NFL in rushing yards and 12th in yards per attempt (4.8).
The 49ers selected Mitchell in the sixth round of the 2021 NFL Draft out of Louisiana, but he’s surpassed his draft position already.
Ohio State product Trey Sermon garnered more hype coming out of the draft. Still, it’s Elijah Mitchell who’s been the more productive first-year back.
The rookie RB channels Lions legend Barry Sanders for inspiration
Elijah Mitchell was an afterthought in the 2021 NFL Draft, but he’s showing everyone that he can be a legitimate No. 1 running back in the league.
The 49ers rookie recently joined The Rich Eisen Show to talk about his rookie season in San Francisco and his unique journey to the NFL.
Rich Eisen asked Mitchell the one running back he wanted to be like coming up through the ranks. He surprisingly answered, Detroit Lions legend Barry Sanders.
You can’t talk about the greatest running backs of all time and not mention Barry Sanders. Although he played just 10 seasons in the NFL, Sanders did more than enough to earn his place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Sanders left a lasting impact on the running backs after him, including Elijah Mitchell. The Niners’ rising star is only 23 years old but still learned a lot from watching highlights of the 10-time Pro Bowler.
“That is an awesome running back,” said Mitchell. “My high school coach used to harp about that. He showed me film of him, and ever since then, I’ve been watching his highlights and stuff.”
The 49ers running back revealed what he liked most about Barry Sanders’ game.
“Just the way he moves and makes people miss,” said Mitchell. “That’s just something I want to do, so that’s the guy that I watched.”
San Francisco’s running game makes this team dangerous
The San Francisco 49ers are on a bit of a hot streak now, reeling off three straight victories after a 3-5 start. The biggest reason for the turnaround seems to be that they’ve found their identity.
49ers legend Jerry Rice previously advised Kyle Shanahan to figure out what he wants the team’s identity to be and stick to it. The fifth-year head coach has taken heed, and his squad is hitting its stride at the perfect time.
San Francisco has run the football extremely well as of late. The 49ers have rushed for more than 150 yards in each of the last three games. They’re coming off a game where they gashed the Minnesota Vikings for 208 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
Establishing the run early to set the tone is a recipe for success for the Niners. Elijah Mitchell is by far the team’s leading rusher, even though he’s only played eight games.
Deebo Samuel has also played a role in the rushing attack. Shanahan has found creative ways to get the ball into the hands of his best playmaker. Samuel suffered a groin injury and will miss one to two weeks, per ESPN.
The 49ers will rely even more heavily on Mitchell to shoulder the load. If he can continue to channel Barry Sanders, San Francisco’s running game shouldn’t miss a beat.
All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference