San Francisco has a talent-laden offensive roster, which includes receivers Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and tight end George Kittle. However, they also have a couple of key positions that are very thin, and manned by ordinary and/or inexperienced players. I have my doubts that QB Jimmy Garoppolo and RB Elijah Mitchell will hold up well after this long season and under the strain of playoff football.
The Running Back
Let’s start with running back Elijah Mitchell. Two years ago, the Niners had three running backs of nearly equal ability – and speed. It was Raheem Mostert who broke Packer fans’ hearts in the playoffs, as he went off for 220 yards on 29 carries. On that season, Raheem had 137 carries, as did Tevin Coleman, and Matt Breida was close behind at 123. Raheem was good for 772 rushing yards, Breida for 623, and Coleman for 544.
How quickly things can change. Mostert, still with the Niners, missed almost the entire 2021 season with serious cartilage damage to his knee. Coleman joined the Jets in 2021, but only started two games for them. Breida spent 2020 with Miami and 2021 with Buffalo. He was primarily a special teams player with the Bills.
This time around the weight is all on the rookie Mitchell. His role on the team picked up as the season went on. From mid-November forward, and when not injured, he played in five regular season games and had at least 21 carries each time. Twice he had 27 carries, the same number he had against the Cowboys. Though he looked solid on Monday night, he averaged a modest 3.6 yards per carry in accumulating 96 yards. On the year though, he averaged a solid 4.7 yards per carry, and ran for 963 yards.
Mitchell has been an eye-opener in the Niners backfield. At 5’10” and 200 pounds, the 23-year old 6th round draft pick is about the size of Aaron Jones. Like Jones, the rookie comes from an FBS (lower division) college, Louisiana – Lafayette. In 2020 he was named to the Sun Belt’s All-Conference team.
The Niners have for years obtained similar running backs, and have done so on the cheap, to man their backfield. The similarity is speed. Mitchell ran a 4.35 40-yard dash, Breida and Mostert did a 4.38; and Coleman was timed at 4.40. If the Packers’ defense can cope with Mitchell’s speed, then quarterback Garoppolo will need an uncharacteristically strong game if the Niners are to prevail. It really matters little who the running back is for the Niners – as long as he’s fast. Though Kyle Shanahan has not shown himself to be a great coach when it comes to winning games, he is a great offensive technician, and his offensive schemes get his running backs in lots of open space.
Mitchell will have his hands full on Saturday. He’s small, he’s been overworked of late, and he’ll be playing only six days after Monday’s 27-carry effort. Mitchell is quite one dimensional, with only 19 pass receptions, and for only 137 yards, on the year.
Asking this rookie to carry the rushing load against the Packers, in this win-or-go-home environment, is asking a lot. The 49ers’ only other rushers on Monday were Garoppolo (1 yard) and receiver Deebo Samuel (10 carries for 72 yards). There is little depth behind Mitchell, unless you’re a fan of JaMycal Hasty, who went undrafted in 2020 and who’s 5’8” tall.
If nothing else, when Samuel lines up in the backfield it telegraphs the likelihood that he’ll be getting the ball. On the year, Samuel has rushed 59 times for 265 yards, a fine 6.1 yard average. Monday was the first time Deebo’s had more than eight rushes in a pro game, so we can expect him to rush at least as many times on Saturday. A year ago, Samuel only rushed eight times total, for 26 yards. Samuel fits the Niners’ mold of rushers: he ran a 4.49 dash, though at 5’11” and 214 pounds he has the build of an RB more than that of a WR.
The pro career of Jimmy Garoppolo is widely known. He was selected, out of Eastern Illinois, by the Patriots in Round 2 of the 2014 draft. After seeing next to no action as Tom Brady’s backup, he was traded to the Niners in mid-season of 2017. Somewhere along the line he got a gaudy contract, though he’s only had one fine yea: as the starter – when he led the 49ers to a 13-3 record in 2019. He of course aided his team in demolishing the Packers in that postseason – though he completed only six of eight passes for 72 yards.
It’s no secret that the 49ers doubt that Jimmy is the guy to lead them to the mountaintop. Last April they used the third overall draft pick on QB Trey Lance. He’s out of North Dakota State, where he led the Bison to two FCS championships, and was named MVP in the game played in 2020. He started two games for San Francisco this year, and on the year he passed for just over 600 yards, five touchdowns, and two interceptions, and compiling a decent 97.3 passer rating. Fans should beware of what they wish for, as not only are Lance’s passing numbers respectable, but he’s as mobile as Garoppolo is not.
Garoppolo is not in great health as the game against the Packers approaches. He’s been dealing with a thumb injury since around Christmas, and now he’s also got what the team calls a “slight” shoulder strain – this is a new injury that apparently occurred in the second quarter of the Cowboys game. As Howard noted, Jimmy G’s accuracy appeared to decline in the second half of the game. Rumors are flying that Garoppolo might not get the start this weekend.
Against the Boys, his numbers were disappointing: 16 of 25 for 172 yards (6.9 ave.), for no touchdowns and one interception, and a dismal passer rating of 67.4. Playoff games are seldom won when a quarterback suffers that poor of a rating.
I believe that Garoppolo, who’s now 30, is contracted with SF through 2022, and he stands to earn $27 million if the team keeps him next year. However, few believe that will happen. “Unproven” might not be the right word. Jimmy G has shown himself to be a very average pro quarterback – not what you’d want in a QB-centric era, much less in the playoffs.
Though San Francisco has some top talent, it doesn’t reside with their starting QB, and I’m far from ready to accept that Elijah Mitchell is a top tier NFL running back.
This game offers Packers’ ILB De’Vondre Campbell a great opportunity to show the world why he came out of nowhere at season’s end to be named a first-team All-Pro. By the way, heading into the meaningless game against Detroit, for which Campbell was held out, I recall that he led the entire league, by five, in solo tackles. If Campbell and his mates are able to limit Mitchell from breaking loose for big runs, I don’t see the Niners scoring more than 20 points in Lambeau’s cold clime. I’m also hopng to see some better pursuit and tacling from safety Darnell Savage.
As to the coaching rivalry, things stand at: Shanahan – two wins, including the 2019 playoff game, and LaFleur – two wins, in the regular seasons of 2020 and 2021. This will be the rubber match.
And let’s hope that the Packers are by now prepared to spot and snuff out any trick plays that the Niners likely have in mind.