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Sunday, December 10, 2023

Elijah Mitchell’s return adds another playmaker to potent 49ers offense


Playing for the first time since missing seven games with an MCL knee sprain, running back Elijah Mitchell showed that he could add something different to an already dynamic San Francisco 49ers offense. 

Mitchell finished with 89 yards on 18 carries, as San Francisco grounded out 157 rushing yards on 41 runs in a 22-16 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers in a nationally televised Sunday night contest at Levi’s Stadium.

The 49ers added another talented running back in Christian McCaffrey via trade from the Carolina Panthers a few weeks ago. McCaffrey finished with 77 scrimmage yards with a touchdown against the Chargers, as the two running back played for the first time together. 

Mitchell said he and McCaffrey can develop into the best running back tandem in the NFL. 

“At the end of the day, it helps both of us,” Mitchell said about his new teammate in McCaffrey. “He’s in Year 6, and he’s an unbelievable back, so I get to learn from him and I’m excited for it.” 

Added San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan: “We know we have a real good back in Elijah. We know we just brought in a real good one with Christian. It’s nice to make those guys a 1-2 punch. And we’ll keep Deebo (Samuel) as the bonus.” 

The victory provided another glimpse of how dynamic San Francisco’s offense can be as they build toward a potential postseason run.

The 49ers improved to 5-4 with the win, just a half game behind the NFC West division leaders, the Seattle Seahawks (6-4). The Bolts dropped to 5-4 with the loss, two games behind the AFC West-leading Kansas City Chiefs (7-2). The Chargers host the Chiefs at SoFi Stadium next week, while San Francisco will face the Arizona Cardinals in Mexico City next week.

The 49ers got back frontline players from injury in fullback Kyle Juszczyk (finger), Samuel (hamstring) and Mitchell (knee). With a balanced offensive attack, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo once again did a nice job of distributing the football to San Francisco’s talented playmakers, orchestrating an efficient offensive performance passing the football by making critical throws on third down and in the red zone when the 49ers need it most.

Garoppolo finished 19 of 28 for 240 yards and did not turn the ball over.

“Guys don’t care if they get 10 targets or one target,” said Garoppolo, when asked about spreading the wealth to his team’s playmakers. “If we get a ‘W’, a ‘W’ is a ‘W’. And that’s all we’re here for.” 

The 49ers finished with 387 yards of offense. Seven different players executed an explosive play of at least 12 yards or more in the running game or passing game.

Give the Chargers credit, Justin Herbert and the rest of the Bolts fought valiantly, grabbing a 16-10 lead at halftime without the services of the team’s top two receivers in Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, both sitting out due to injury. 

Herbert had one of his better performances since suffering fractured rib cartilage in a Week 2 contest against the Chiefs. The University of Oregon product finished 21 of 35 for 196 passing yards. 

Herbert got the Bolts on the scoreboard first on the team’s opening drive, capped by a 32-yard touchdown to DeAndre Carter. The Chargers also took advantage of a fumble by San Francisco receiver Brandon Aiyuk and a deflected punt by Nick Niemann, creating opportunities for two field goals by Cameron Dicker

However, a key play for the Chargers occurred late in the first half. San Francisco linebacker Dre Greenlaw was ejected for personal foul penalty after a helmet-to-helmet hit on Herbert as he scrambled for extra yards down the middle of the field. 

According to the TV broadcast, NFL’s executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent said the league looked at the play and determined Greenlaw lowered his head and used illegal, forceable and flagrant contact to the head of an opponent. Greenlaw left the game as San Francisco’s leading tackler with seven combined tackles. 

“It kind of actually blew my mind,” Shanahan said about the ejection. “I understand the penalty. I totally get that, right at the third down marker and he was lowering his shoulder. But I’ve got to learn what that is. … For us to lose Greenlaw off that for a whole game, that really shocked me.” 

Herbert had to leave the game after the play and was replaced by Chase Daniel for the final two plays of the first half. The Chargers had to settle for another Dicker field goal on that drive and led 16-10 at halftime. Herbert was cleared to return to the game in the second half, but L.A.’s offense never got back on track.

Instead, the 49ers came out in the second half and controlled the game, keeping Los Angeles scoreless the rest of the way and holding them to just 52 yards of total offense in the second half. 

“I was proud of our team today,” Shanahan said. “I want to play better. I want to blow people out and score every time we go, but that team is really good at winning, the Chargers. … But we still found a way to win.” 

Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.

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