How 49ers' D-line has grown in eyes of returning veteran Earl Mitchell

How 49ers' D-line has grown in eyes of returning veteran Earl Mitchell

SANTA CLARA -- It had been more than a year since veteran defensive tackle Earl Mitchell played for the 49ers.

It did not take him long after re-signing with the club after the conclusion of the regular season to notice a difference from the past two years.

“It was awesome just to see how much these guys have grown,” Mitchell said after playing 11 snaps in a backup role in the 49ers’ 27-10 win over the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs.

Mitchell, 32, a 10-year NFL veteran, came out of retirement to add depth to the 49ers’ defensive line after not playing a down for any team during the regular season.

Now, the 49ers are moving on to the NFC Championship Game on Sunday against the Green Bay Packers.

Mitchell started 28 of the 30 games in which he appeared for the 49ers in 2017 and ’18. He played with Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas, and he can clearly see how much the players he lined up alongside have come along in their careers.

“It’s a totally different team than what I witnessed down the line from Solomon, Buckner, Armstead,” Mitchell said. “They’re playing fast and free and they’re comfortable and they know themselves. It’s really just a great atmosphere.”

Mitchell was particularly impressed with a sequence he saw from Thomas early in the fourth quarter.

“That screen play that Solomon made that play on, he called it out before he even made that play,” Mitchell said. “I can’t tell you how proud of him I was, just as a vet to see these guys grow and actually be able to see something and capitalize on it is just growth.

“We knew what they were going to do, but literally right before the play started, Solomon called it. He gave me the word. ‘This is going to be a screen. Be prepared.’ We were both were on top of it.”

Thomas lined up at right defensive tackle with Mitchell to his left. As soon as Vikings running back Dalvin Cook started to leave the backfield, Thomas changed course to track him. Linebacker Dre Greenlaw also knew what was coming, and he dropped Cook behind the line of scrimmage and forced a fumble with Thomas right there.

“Just the confidence, to be able to call out something and look me in the eye, like, ‘All right,’ rather than being apprehensive and being slow, and being able to play fast and trusting what you’re seeing,” Mitchell said.

Thomas had three tackles and a sack while playing 14 snaps.

[RELATED49ers' Nick Bosa named NFL Rookie of the Year by writers association]

Mitchell also credited 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and first-year defensive line coach Kris Kocurek for having the defense properly prepared for the Vikings. Mitchell said he remembers communication on the sideline being an issue the past two seasons. But he was impressed with the efficiency of making corrections between defensive series Saturday.

“They came out with their normal game plan,” Mitchell said of the Vikings. “I think we were just well-prepared. Coach Kocurek harped on them trying to run to our weak side on our defense, and we keyed on that pretty much and we stayed true to our keys and got after it. We knew what they were going to try to do and kudos to Saleh and everybody.”

The 49ers held Minnesota to just 147 total yards of offense, including just 21 yards rushing. Cook had 18 yards rushing on nine rushing attempts and just 8 yards on six receptions.


Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers playoff coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (6 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Wednesday and Friday)

Also tune in at 2:30 p.m. Sunday for “49ers Pregame Live,” with Laura Britt, Jeff Garcia, Donte Whitner, Ian Williams and Grant Liffmann previewing the NFC Championship Game against the Packers. That same crew will have all the postgame reaction on “49ers Postgame Live,” starting at approximately 5:30 p.m.

Bill Belichick's faith in Jimmy Garoppolo all Troy Aikman needed to hear

Bill Belichick's faith in Jimmy Garoppolo all Troy Aikman needed to hear

MIAMI, Fla. -- Eight. That's a number being tossed around a lot this week in Miami ahead of the 49ers' clash with the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV. 

As has been well-documented, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo only was asked to throw the ball eight times in the 49ers' NFC Championship Game win over the Green Bay Packers. But Garoppolo's lack of attempts wasn't due to lack of confidence from head coach Kyle Shanahan. The 49ers were picking up yards in chunks on the ground against the Packers. No matter what play they ran, Raheem Mostert sliced through the Packers' defense en route to a record-breaking game to send the 49ers to Miami. 

With Mostert and the ground game humming, Garoppolo was able to put it in cruise control and coast to Sout Beach. 

In order to beat Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, Garoppolo will, in theory, have to throw a touch more than eight times. Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, who will call the game Sunday on FOX, has all the belief in the world that Garoppolo can make the plays when called upon at Hard Rock Stadium. 

"I understand what happens when you only throw the ball eight times,” Aikman said Tuesday. “I really believe if he’s needed that he’s certainly capable of playing at a really high level. I really think he’s going to have a much bigger impact on this game than what he had the first two [playoff games]." 

Garoppolo had a good season, and Chiefs head coach Andy Reid certainly isn't buying the idea that Garoppolo isn't something to worry about. Frank Clark on the other end didn't sound super impressed with what he's seen from Garoppolo, but the 27-year-old has made plays when it mattered this season. 

He threw for 3,978 yards and 27 touchdowns while leading the NFL's second-highest scoring offense. He led game-winning drives in New Orleans against the Saints and at home against the Arizona Cardinals. When called upon, Garoppolo has been nails. 

For Aikman, his belief in Garoppolo is rooted not in what the quarterback has done this season, but in the faith that Bill Belichick had in him to eventually take the reigns from Tom Brady. When Aikman asked Belichick about Garoppolo, the legendary head coach had unwavering faith that the current face of the 49ers could do everything needed of him. 

"And when Bill Belichick says win, that doesn’t mean win Week 3,” Aikman said. “That means, win it all. I thought it spoke volumes for the respect that he had for him.” 

When Belichick speaks, you listen. 

[RELATED: How Alex Smith helped develop Mahomes during rookie season]

Garoppolo watched Brady and Belichick win two Super Bowls during his time in New England. Soaking in the lessons from a dynastic operation that has spanned two decades. 

Now, the bright lights will shine down on him Sunday as he tries to win the 49ers franchise its sixth Super Bowl title. Something Aikman, and Belichick, believe he can do.

Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers Super Bowl coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (8 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and 3 p.m. Saturday).

Also tune in at 1 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday for a two-hour special of "49ers Pregame Live" with Laura Britt, Donte Whitner, Jeff Garcia, Ian Williams, Kelli Johnson, Greg Papa and Grant Liffmann. That same crew will have all the postgame reaction on "49ers Postgame Live," starting immediately after the game.

Dee Ford has moved on from crucial offsides penalty, even if Chiefs fans haven't


Dee Ford has moved on from crucial offsides penalty, even if Chiefs fans haven't

MIAMI, Fla. – Dee Ford lined up offsides in a crucial moment. It cost the Kansas City Chiefs dearly.

The edge rusher understands that, even without constant reminders from the media during Super Bowl week.

What happened in last year’s AFC Championship game was regrettable. He lined up offsides with a minute left and the Chiefs ahead, negating an interception that would’ve essentially sealed victory.

Ford never got a chance to make up for that moment. He was traded to the 49ers this offseason for a second-round pick and subsequently signed a five-year, $85 million contract with $33 million guaranteed.

Ford doesn't think much about that moment anymore, even if Chiefs fans can't let it go. It apparently bothers Chiefs edge rusher Frank Clark, who has ripped Ford several times for the unforced error even though he wasn’t a Chief when it happened. It’s almost like he’s trying to get in Ford’s head before the 49ers and Chiefs clash Sunday in Super Bowl LIV.

That’s not going to work. Ford has long since moved on.

“In this league and in sports in general, you have to have a short memory,” Ford said this week. “I could’ve let that affect me, but that’s not what champions do. That’s not what great players do. At the end of the day, I know what my responsibility was and I held myself accountable. I was able preserver and get over it. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to help Kansas City, but I was able to help my new team perform well and get to a really good situation.”

Ford is in a great situation, with a big-money contract while working with the NFL’s best defensive front. He admits he’s looking forward to playing the team that drafted him No. 23 overall in the Super Bowl.

“Yeah,” Ford said. “You always want to play your old team. I built a lot of great relationships in Kansas City. It should be fun going up against them.”