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.

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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.

Inside Richard Sherman interception that sealed 49ers NFC championship

Inside Richard Sherman interception that sealed 49ers NFC championship

SANTA CLARA – Richard Sherman plays left cornerback in the 49ers defensive scheme. He doesn’t shadow receivers but moved around a bit early in Sunday’s NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers. He was tracking Davante Adams for a little while to give the Packers something else to think about, but he eventually locked in on the left.

He still matched up with Adams at times, including a fourth-quarter play where Adams him badly on a 65-yard bomb down the sideline.

That was a real rarity. Sherman doesn’t get targeted much, and almost never gets torched like that. But, as usual, the veteran cornerback had the last laugh.

He intercepted another deep volley intended for Adams that sealed a 37-20 victory over that sent the 49ers to the Super Bowl.

After a raucous postgame celebration where he got a little emotional, Sherman took us all through that play.

“They ran a corner post. We were in quarters coverage,” Sherman said. “I just kept running. I knew it wasn't necessarily my responsibility, but I knew he was going to take the shot there and go for the gusto. Just wanted to track the ball down, give us a chance. I was tracking. I thought it was kind of out of my reach for a while. I was going to go for the bat down. And, as I got my feet under me, I noticed I could get under it and I was able to do it.”

It was a big moment and a quick reversal of fortune for someone who got beat a few plays earlier. The rebound wasn’t surprising to those who study the 49ers intently.

His fourth postseason interception and the second of this playoff run filled his teammates with pride. They thought the moment fitting considering their defensive leader closed out another important game.

“It was awesome,” rookie linebacker Richard Sherman said. “He looked like a receiver on that play. I’m glad he made up for it, man. The deep ball got him earlier, but he’s a captain on our team and we know you can’t get Richard too many times.

“We knew they needed to go downfield given the score, and he was right there, made the play and got us the victory. I’m excited to play with a guy of that caliber. He’s a legend. I’ve been watching Richard since I was a young kid. To play with him and learn from him is a blessing. It’s a dream come true.”

The play itself was pretty athletic, considering how far he had to run to get the ball. Nobody was surprised he was able to get there and officially close things out.

“It was amazing,” slot cornerback K’Waun Williams said. “To be out there and have Richard finish this game off was great.”

Young defenders listen to Sherman closely, and his words can have as much of an impact as his on-field play. The 49ers stayed focused in the second half despite a commanding 27-point lead thanks to practicing what Sherman preaches.

“’Sherm’ has done a great job of keeping our emotions from getting too high,” rookie edge rusher Nick Bosa said. “It really is a long game and a lot of different things can happen. You can’t get overhyped about one play or one series or even a first half. His biggest message was to keep the foot on the pedal the entire game.”

Raheem Mostert's long path from many places to the heart of 49ers lore

Raheem Mostert's long path from many places to the heart of 49ers lore

SANTA CLARA  -- The search for the champion among champions in the 49ers’ locker room Sunday night ended in what many NFL personnel experts surely considered the unlikeliest of places, at the cubicle of a man they never knew and barely saw.

Raheem Mostert spent two years sliding past their eyes and through their fingers before finally being dropped into the gift bag former 49ers coach Chip Kelly would leave behind for the new regime.

Three years and change later, Mostert has etched his name in the NFL record book and become the toast of the 49er Faithful.

With Mostert amassing 220 yards on 29 carries, accounting for 226 of the team’s 358 total yards – and all four of their touchdowns – the 49ers sprinted past the Green Bay Packers and into Super Bowl LVI with a 37-20 victory in the NFC Championship Game at Levi’s Stadium.

Mostert’s brilliance allowed coach Kyle Shanahan bet on a game plan that would not have dared enter the fertile mind of his father, Mike Shanahan, and most certainly not the most revered coach in 75 seasons of 49ers history. Bill Walsh would have frowned at the mention of throwing eight passes in 60 minutes.

Shanahan and his quarterback, Jimmy Garappolo got away with it because Mostert spent the day piercing and dashing through Green Bay’s defense, culminating in the game his life – and, given his perilous path, one he so richly deserved.

“It’s crazy that I’ve been on seven different teams,” he said. “I actually still have the cut dates and I look at that before every game. I look at the cut dates. When I got cut.”

The list of NFL transactions attached on Mostert’s page on the pro-football-reference.com website reads like a 25-chapter book, beginning in May 2015 when the undrafted running back signed with the Eagles, followed by the Dolphins, the Ravens, the Browns, the Jets and the Bears, who dismissed him on Nov. 24, 2016.

Six teams, six heartbreaks, over 18 months. Maybe it was time for Mostert to give up. Go back to Florida, where he was a two-star recruit as a prep wide receiver. Maybe stay home in Cleveland, where his wife has family.

“Not everybody can deal with that type of stress and pain and agony that I went through,” Mostert said. “But I kept the faith in not only myself but whoever gave me the opportunity. This organization has done a great job of that.”

Four days after he was bumped from Chicago, Kelly, who released Mostert in Philly, signed him in San Francisco. Six weeks later, Kelly was fired and Mostert was, um, deeply concerned.

New 49ers general manager John Lynch and Shanahan met with Mostert and promised he’d get a fair chance. He jumped all over that bet.

“They basically told me they believe in me,” Mostert said.

As a special-teams player, yes. As a starting running back, no.

Lynch and Shanahan signed Matt Breida in May. One year later, they spent lavishly (a reported $30 million over four years) to add free agent Jerick McKinnon. They then signed Tevin Coleman last summer to a two-year contract worth a reported $10 million.

When Mostert arrived for training camp six months ago, he was the owner of a three-year contract worth $8.7 million, a valuable member of the special teams – and the No. 4 running back on the depth chart.

Over the course of the season, as McKinnon, Coleman and Breida all dealt with varying degrees of injury-forced inactivity, Shanahan started taking longer looks at Mostert. He still had the 4.4 speed he flashed as a track star at Purdue, and he made a habit of racing past defenders. He finished with 10 touchdowns and a 5.6-yards-per-carry average that was No. 1 among all NFL running backs.

“We do our job, and he turns five-yard runs into house calls,” left tackle Mike McGlinchey said.

Demoralizing Green Bay’s defense with 160 yards on 14 first-half carries, Mostert averaged 7.6 yards per carry in the game. Coleman totaled 21 yards on six carries before leaving with a shoulder injury. Breida carried once, for two yards.

The Packers kept getting Mostert, Mostert and more Mostert.

“I can’t believe I’m in this position right now and that I did the things that I did tonight,” he said.

Guess who is No. 1 now? The guy who sent Aaron Rodgers into the offseason with a performance for the ages.

“That’s an unbelievable thing,” McGlinchey said. “That’s like movie stuff. To be the MVP of the NFL Championship Game and get four touchdowns and put your team in the Super Bowl, that’s pretty cool.”

It’s not as if Mostert is the star who materialized out of nowhere. Rather, he came from just about everywhere.