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.
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.