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49ers-Chargers: RB Elijah Mitchell shines in return from injury, says he and Christian McCaffrey can be NFL’s best duo

Nov 13, 2022 at 10:39 PM--

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Christian McCaffrey was the center of attention in the 49ers backfield heading into Sunday night's game against the Los Angeles Chargers, but it wound up being Elijah Mitchell who shined the brightest in the team's 22-16 win, which came as a bit of a surprise considering where each running back was before the week started.

McCaffrey had a game for the ages two weeks ago when he ran for a touchdown, threw for a touchdown and caught a touchdown in the 49ers' Week 8 win over the Rams before the 49ers began their bye week. There was no shortage of interest in what he'd do for an encore when the 49ers faced the Chargers, while Mitchell was playing in his first football game since Week 1 after being sidelined for two months with a knee injury. But while McCaffrey made his presence felt in the win over the Chargers by chipping in 72 total yards and one touchdown on 18 touches, it was Mitchell who wound up carrying the load on the ground when the game was on the line.

Mitchell finished with 89 yards on 18 carries, with several key carries coming late in the game when the 49ers were grinding out a comeback win after trailing 16-10 at halftime. The 49ers planned on splitting carries between Mitchell and McCaffrey Sunday night, but they wound up riding the hot hand when it mattered most.

"We were hoping that the carries could come out about even," 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said after the win Sunday. "That kind of was our goal before the game started was to have a goal to have about even carries, but you never know how the game goes. Then at the end there when we were just trying to hammer it down, we were just feeling him, so we kept him out there."

Mitchell's success didn't come as a surprise to the 49ers. He showed he was at 100 percent at practice during the week, and he proved it when he was called upon against the Chargers.

"When Elijah's healthy, he can run the ball," Shanahan said. "It doesn't take him long. We always want to see for ourselves when he comes out in practice, but just seeing him Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, he looked ready to go. That was what we were hoping."

Sunday night's performance was a long time coming for Mitchell, who had to watch while the 49ers rotated running backs such as Jeff Wilson, Tevin Coleman, and Tyrion Davis-Price in his absence. Then the 49ers traded for McCaffrey in late October, which left Wilson and Coleman out of the picture and created some uncertainty around the type of workload Mitchell would get when he returned to full health. Sunday night proved that Mitchell will remain a significant factor.

"I didn't know it was going to happen. I prepare anyways," Mitchell said. "I knew we were going to split carries either way. It came out real good, though."

Sunday night also proved the 49ers have a mighty two-headed monster on their hands with McCaffrey and Mitchell, who made up the bulk of the team's 157 rushing yards on 41 carries with two touchdowns. Their production came as a surprise to Shanahan, who wasn't expecting his backs to be able to put up those numbers against the Chargers.

"We wanted to run the ball a lot," Shanahan said. "We didn't think we'd be able to get that many -- just how good (the Chargers) are in their short yardage and some of their run situations. Their offense is pretty good at holding the clock. So we weren't expecting to get that much. I think the way our defense went in the second half, we got it back a bunch of times and some of our longer drives, converting some of those short yardages allowed us to get it."

After seeing the two of them share the field Sunday night, it'll be fascinating to see what McCaffrey and Mitchell can do the rest of the way. McCaffrey seems to like playing with Mitchell so far ("He's physical, runs downhill well, breaks arm tackles, runs hard. Fun to share the backfield with for sure," McCaffrey said Sunday), while Mitchell is looking forward to McCaffrey's presence making him better.

"At the end of the day, it helps both of us," Mitchell said. "He's year six, and he's an unbelievable back, and I get to learn from him, so I'm excited for it."

Throw in the occasional carry from wide receiver Deebo Samuel, and the 49ers should be able to present constant headaches out of the backfield for opposing defenses the rest of the way. If all of them are able to stay on the field and the 49ers are able to keep their blockers healthy as well, Sunday night's showing could prove to be just the start of big things to come from the 49ers running game.

"We know we've got a real good back in Elijah," Shanahan said. "We know we just brought in a real good one with Christian. It's nice to kind of make those guys a one-two punch and keep Deebo as the bonus. But I feel both of those guys need another guy to help them and it's good it doesn't always need to be a receiver."

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