CHICAGO -- The first six games and seven weeks of the 2021 NFL season had been something to forget for Brandon Aiyuk.
But the 49ers' second-year wide receiver just kept chopping, and he finally looked like the Aiyuk of 2020 Sunday, tallying four catches for 45 yards in the 49ers' 33-22 win over the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.
The numbers aren't gaudy, but it's a step in the right direction for Aiyuk, who came into Sunday's game with just nine catches for 96 yards on the season. For Aiyuk, it all boils down to how he attacks his preparation.
"I think we talk about it all the time," Aiyuk said after the win. "Our big phrase was: 'It's a mindset.' So I think that was it, just taking that into a week of practice. Starting last week, rolling it into this week and just continue to roll throughout the week, and then it's easy on Sundays."
Coach Kyle Shanahan has been hard on the talented wide receiver to start the season, but he knew a breakout performance was on the horizon for Aiyuk.
"I thought BA, I mean, I don't know what his numbers were, or anything, but BA played his butt off today," Shanahan said. "He was great. I knew he had a chance going into the game. He has strung together a number of good weeks here, and I felt like this was the main week where his game really went up in practice to where it gave me a lot of confidence throughout the week, gave the quarterbacks a lot of confidence, and I could feel it from him all week, and I felt it from him today. Big props to BA."
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After a rookie season where he caught 60 passes for 748 yards and five touchdowns in 12 games, many expected Aiyuk to make a leap in Year 2 and announce himself as one of the best young wideouts in football. That hasn't happened in 2021.
Aiyuk opened the season with zero targets against the Detroit Lions and followed that up with just one catch for 6 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 2. Outside of a four-catch, 37-yard performance in Week 3 against the Green Bay Packers, Aiyuk has been relatively invisible as the 49ers' passing game has had to rely heavily on Deebo Samuel.
Aiyuk knows he hasn't lived up to expectations this season.
"I would say ... it could be a bunch of different reasons," Aiyuk said when asked why he hasn't had a good season so far. "All I know is, I control what I can. Control the controllables. That's even with blocking, when somebody else has the ball, somebody else is running the ball, somebody else is catching the ball. Controlling my part and usually, stuff starts to trend in the right direction when I do that. I don't really get caught up in that. We got a win today, and that really doesn't matter at all as long as we see Ws."
Samuel had another monster day, pulling down six balls for 171 yards in the win. He has been the 49ers' unquestioned MVP through seven games.
After finally making a positive impact on the field and helping the 49ers snap their four-game losing streak, Aiyuk is confident he can be the Robin to Samuel's Batman in the 49ers' receiving corps. But he would feel that way regardless of how Sunday went.
It's just how he's wired.
"Of course," Aiyuk said when asked if he felt he and Samuel are on their way to being a top-level receiving duo. "No matter what happens like that, I see it all the time. I could have no catches, no targets I still go into next week expecting that, preparing for that."
Aiyuk's arrow finally appears to be pointing up. If he can build off his performance in Chicago, the 49ers' offense might really be on its way out of the pit of despair it has resided in over the last month. They found a pulse Sunday in Chicago, but the good vibes won't last if Samuel doesn't have a proper wingman on the outside.
The numbers don't have to be eye-popping, but Aiyuk has to be a consistent threat that defenses must account for. If he can be that, the 49ers' offense might be able to bottle the lighting it found Sunday in the second half against the Bears.
His troubles hopefully behind him, the 49ers will be preparing for this Brandon Aiyuk to show up for the remaining 10 games.